LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Campus life at a big university or even a small college can be strange and confusing, especially for first-generation students whose parents didn't go to college. So schools are making special efforts to support first-gen students, including one in Illinois. That's NPR - that's where NPR's Elissa Nadworny visited.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: When she first arrived on campus just outside Chicago, Samantha Sowa remembers feeling really overwhelmed.
SAMANTHA SOWA: That first impression is that - yes, it is the secret language. I don't know how I'm going to tackle it. How am I going to get initiated into it? How is it going to work?
NADWORNY: She's the first in her family to work towards a bachelor's degree.
SOWA: We don't have anyone in our families to rely on to give us that advice, so we need some help from the broader community to help us to get on board with this.
NADWORNY: First-gen students represent about half of all college students, but they have far lower graduation rates. Luckily for Samantha, her school, North Central College - it's really good at supporting students like her. That's in part because there's a lot of them. Forty-three percent of students at the small private school are just like Samantha. They're first-gen.
JULIE CARBALLO: I think it's really beneficial for the first-gen students to have somewhere to go when they have a question.
NADWORNY: That's Julie Carballo, who leads the effort on campus called the Cardinal First program, after the school's mascot.
CARBALLO: I tell them it's the insider knowledge about what you need to do to be successful.
NADWORNY: It's her job to help those students feel like they belong, and it starts at orientation.
CARBALLO: We created a list of everyone on our campus who was a first-generation college student.
NADWORNY: It's got lots of professors. The dean of admissions is on there and the track and field coach, plus folks who work in residential life, career services and facilities.
CARBALLO: Just the relief and inspiration and motivation that brings to the students and their parents when they see that - it's just so reassuring. And I have it out at every one of our events.
NADWORNY: And there are tons of events. All throughout the year, Carballo runs these workshops to break down the secret language of college.
CARBALLO: Raise your hand if you've heard people talking to you about the importance of networking, networking, networking.
NADWORNY: And she goes over things like office hours, that set time to go meet with your professor. If students are nervous about it, Carballo will role-play with them to practice what exactly to say.
Another big part are the free meals. For first-gen freshmen, Carballo hosts lunch every other Friday.
CARBALLO: December birthdays - lots of December birthdays - please stand. Go ahead and lead our birthday chant.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) This is your birthday song. It doesn't last too long. Hey.
NADWORNY: The room is packed. And there's faculty members who once were first-generation college students at every table.
DONNAVIEVE SMITH: I'm Donnavieve Smith. I'm a professor in marketing.
NADWORNY: To her table, professor Smith explains how she picked a major, found a mentor and surrounded herself with people who had her back. She talks about her background. She grew up in the South Side of Chicago. Her dad worked two full-time jobs, and her mom worked at a bank.
SMITH: Be proud of your heritage. The more we as a community of first-geners (ph) share our story, I think the more empowered other individuals around us will become, right?
NADWORNY: If students show up to enough of these events, they get a recurring thousand-dollar scholarship. And the money helps. Ninety-three percent of the students in the program came back to school the following semester. And for students who started the program four years ago, 81% graduated on time last May.
Samantha Sowa - she's now a junior. And she says the program has made her feel connected and confident. Her younger brother just started college, and he's constantly asking her questions about school.
SOWA: We're really close. I consider him my best friend. So he always calls me and reaches out to me if he has any questions. And so I'm really happy that he's not afraid to do so and that I'm able to help him.
NADWORNY: It makes Samantha proud to be able to pass on that knowledge she learned here to her little brother.
Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Naperville, Ill.
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