In fall 2019, Argentinian native Olivia Gurfinkiel entered Cornell University as a first-year, first-generation college student, uncertain of where the next four years would lead her. This spring, Olivia and 15 fellow seniors from the first cohort of Kessler Scholars will graduate from Cornell and embark upon their professional careers, bolstered by the holistic student support they received from the Kessler Scholars Program.
Olivia was no stranger to adapting to new environments when she came to Cornell’s Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration. She and her mother had moved to the United States when Olivia was a sophomore in high school, leaving Olivia to have to navigate countless cultural differences.
“It’s the network and the people that make the Kessler Scholars Program.”
Olivia Gurfinkiel, Class of 2023
Still, heading to the Ivy League required an entirely different level of adaptation. Olivia credits her participation in the Kessler Scholars—and the individual and community support she received through the cohort-based program—as key to assimilating to both the cultural and academic rigors of college life.
“There are so many unknowns that you’re not supposed to know coming in,” she says. “Like how do I reach out to my professor about a question in class or what do I even need for a dorm room—such simple facts that I wasn’t able to receive from my parents. I of course had their encouragement and their love but these resources weren’t really available to me, which is why Kessler Scholars is so amazing.”
For Olivia, the strength of the Kessler Scholars experience comes down to the connections she has made, “the network and the people that make the Kessler program.” Post-graduation, Olivia is headed to Ernst & Young-Parthenon in New York, where she interned during her time as a Kessler Scholar. She hopes this first job as a strategy consultant will eventually take her to the world of education or government consulting.
Olivia draws a direct line from her Kessler Scholars experience to her big step into the “real world.” “I really feel like Kessler helped us prepare for what’s to come,” she said. “Kessler has been helping us with everything from getting ready for the workplace to finding housing. My Kessler mentor lives in New York. I have a place to live and roommates, and I’m returning to a company where I know the dynamic.”
With its launch in 2019, Cornell was the first partner institution to join the Kessler Scholars Collaborative alongside the University of Michigan, where the program was first developed. Looking back, Olivia reflected on how much the program at Cornell has grown over the course of her undergraduate experience. “I’ve just seen how much Kessler has evolved from my first year,” she said, noting the addition of new program resources, activities, workshops, and trips. “I’m excited for myself, but I’m also excited for the next generation of Kessler Scholars.”
For Olivia, a highlight from her undergraduate experience was her sophomore semester in Barcelona as part of Cornell’s study abroad program. Kessler Scholars staff guide and encourage students as they explore these kinds of high-impact educational experiences, part of the wrap-around support structure that is at the center of the Kessler Scholars model.
“This level of close engagement with students is a hallmark of the Kessler Scholars Program, and one of the most crucial benefits we provide to our students,” says Shakima M. Clency, National Director of Campus Partnerships and Student Success for the Collaborative who also led the initial development of the Cornell program. “We know that these connections provide a solid foundation for student success.”
Olivia believes Kessler Scholars at Cornell all share a common throughline: recognizing the immense opportunity inherent in the college experience, something that peers whose parents earned a four-year college degree might take for granted. “It’s an opportunity that you really have to take advantage of while you’re here. I haven’t met one single person who isn’t totally driven and has the same values and sees college the same way which is not a given,” she said. “I can’t wait until I’m in the working world and, hopefully, Kessler Scholars are reaching out to me.”