Cardinal First: North Central College Commits to First-generation Student Success

Julie Carballo M.Ed., North Central College / The Center / April 10, 2018

cardinal first

“Cardinal First gave me a support group I didn’t know I needed.”
- North Central College first-generation student and Cardinal First participant

Nearly 40 percent of students at North Central College identify as first-generation college students and will become the first in their family to earn a bachelor’s degree. The Cardinal First program, piloted in Fall 2014, and officially launched in Fall 2015, provides a supportive and fun community that connects our students to each other, to our first-gen faculty and staff, and to the plethora of campus resources and opportunities. To encourage ongoing participation in the Cardinal First program, the College awards a $500 annual, renewable scholarship to students after one full year of participation in the program.
In addition to myself, Cardinal First is staffed with one graduate assistant and 30 first-generation upper class students who were selected to be Cardinal First Ambassadors (student leaders). Ambassadors attend leadership development workshops twice per trimester. We are also fortunate to have 125 faculty and staff members who were first-gen students themselves and who are passionately committed to ongoing engagement with our first-gen students. first-generation faculty/staff are in attendance at every Cardinal First event and many have chosen to be faculty mentors to our first-year, first-gen students. All Cardinal First participants are given a list of the first-generation faculty and staff on campus, all of whom have a sign in their office identifying them as such.

The Cardinal First programming includes:

Cardinal First Fridays - interactive, monthly lunch workshops offered on the first Friday of each month at 3 consecutive times (that coincide with class times so students choose a time that doesn’t conflict with their class schedule). At each 65-minute workshop, the first 20 minutes are lunch and fellowship with assigned table groups; each table is hosted by a Cardinal First Ambassador and a first-gen faculty guest visits each table. After that, the first-generation faculty guest shares a short version (5-7 minutes) of his/her first-gen story and wisdom with the attendees. The remainder of the workshop is a content-based, interactive workshop on topics such as Time Management, Preparing for Final Exams, Building a Winning Resume, Life Balance, Goal Setting, etc.

Cardinal First Sophomore Suppers - interactive, one-hour suppers twice per trimester with 8-10 attendees per table and a first-generation faculty or staff member serving as table host for the hour-long event. Each table host is asked to bring a picture of him/herself when they were a sophomore in college. The format is 30 minutes supper and fellowship followed by 30 minutes interactive workshop and having table groups compete in a trivia contest guessing which quiz statement applies to which first-generation faculty/staff guest (e.g. As a sophomore in college, this person was a retail store manager and a psychology major). At the end of the year, the first-gen sophomores have a Halfway to Graduation Celebration with half-sandwiches, half-cookies, Arnold Palmers and each attendee receives a half-mug that says “Halfway There.”

Cardinal First Penultimate (for juniors) and Cardinal First Homestretch (for seniors) are interactive lunch workshops offered twice per trimester at 3 consecutive times. The culminating activity for our first-gen students is the Cardinal First Graduation Recognition & Pinning Ceremony held the day before graduation. At this event, each first-gen graduate asks a faculty/staff member who was an important part of their college journey to present the graduate with a Cardinal First pin that will be worn on their graduation gown the next day.

Cardinal First Transition - (for our new first-generation transfer students) - a series of four interactive lunch workshops during their first term at NC with the purpose of introducing these students to each other and to the valuable resources, student organizations and other high-impact opportunities that are available to them. Student leaders in this program are first-generation upper class students who also transferred to NC.

New initiatives launched this year at North Central College include: Chem First (for first-generation chem and biochemistry majors) with a first-generation faculty chemistry professor serving as their mentor and Health First (for first-generation pre-health majors) with the Pre-Health Advisor (also first-generation) serving as mentor. By Fall 2018, we expect to launch Cardinal First Marketing (for marketing majors) and Write First (for English/Journalism majors).

We have had great success with the Cardinal First in the short time period since its launch. Of the 118 first-generation students who participated in the Cardinal First Fridays program during the 2016-17 academic year, 92 percent returned for their sophomore year vs. only 64 percent of the first-generation students who did not participate (the college’s overall retention rate was 79 percent).

Of the 111 first-generation students who participated in Cardinal First Fridays during the 2015-16 academic year, 97 percent returned for their sophomore year vs. only 65 percent of the first-generation students who did not opt into the program (the college’s overall retention rate was 78 percent). First to third-year persistence for this cohort was 89 percent for first-generation students participating in Cardinal First vs only 51 percent for first-generation students not in the program (the college’s overall rate was 69 percent).

“I want to thank you for Cardinal First and for helping me transition to a four-year college. I LOVE Cardinal First because it motivated me to be a leader and a role model to my younger siblings.”
- Recent North Central College graduate and Cardinal First participant

To learn more about Cardinal First, visit: and the Cardinal First Facebook page.