Adjusting to college is never an easy task. Learning to balance workload and social well-being, dealing with homesickness, and living in a new environment can pose challenges for everyone. While programs like New Student Orientation (NSO) aim to make the transition to life at college smoother, some students—whose backgrounds may magnify these challenges—require additional support.
“Students who come to Wesleyan from families or home communities where lots of people went to college [are] getting lots of insight before they arrive about what to expect,” Dean for Academic Equity, Inclusion, and Success April Ruiz said. “[But] when you’re first-gen you don’t necessarily have that.”
The First Cardinals program reconciles the unique challenges that First-Generation, Low-Income (FGLI) students face when adjusting to life at the University. Initially introduced by Vice President of the WSA Ariana Baez ’22, Chair of the Equity and Inclusion Committee (EIC) at the time, the new program aims to pair FGLI first-year students with upper-level students who have gone through the difficult transition of adjusting to campus life.
“There wasn’t really any program around aiding FGLI students in the more social elements of the transition to college,” EIC Chair Elena Brennan ’24 said.
This year, the program has 17 mentors, who offer support to 21 first years. Ben Filio ’22, a mentor to two first years, said that the program offers support to students after orientation and during their time at the University.
“A lot of initiatives [at the University] are never about retention and making sure people from underrepresented backgrounds stay in college,” Fillio said. “So First Cardinals is one of the first steps to making sure [that] there’s an active support group that’s help[ing] students beyond just orientation get accustomed to the [University].”
At the beginning of the academic year, interested FGLI upper-level and first-year students fill out a form describing their interests and prospective majors to begin the process of mentor/mentee pairing.
“Mentees are matched to mentors based on things like their academic interests or their extracurricular interests,” Filio said. “So I’ve been able to advise one of my mentees on [things like] graduate research [and] how not to get too overwhelmed with what’s happening.”
Once mentees are paired with their mentors, they meet up for an informal get-together where students play ice-breaker games and can ask each other questions. Mentors are required to meet with their mentees for a minimum of three hours per month, allowing for monthly check-ins.
“Mentors are matched with either one or two mentees,” Filio said. “It could be just like a ranting session or, ‘Do you need help setting up lights in your room? Do you want to study together?’ Like, it’s all sorts of [things].”
Established during the height of the pandemic in Spring 2020, First Cardinals was created in preparation for a time when many students would be struggling to acclimate to the new social atmosphere of the University.
“Students were coming to [a] campus that they’ve probably never visited before, during a pandemic, a time of anomaly,” Baez said. “[A lot of] people were suffering from isolation and when you add those weighted identities, it makes it harder for some communities [to adjust socially]. So, I think COVID kind of shined light on how [important] this program needed to be implemented.”
Many existing programs associated with FGLI success at the University are focused on academics rather than mental well-being. Ruiz believes that social well-being is necessary for success in other areas.
“If we’re not taking care of ourselves as individuals and also just as social beings there’s a lot that’s not going to stick,” Ruiz said. “None of the other academic stuff is going to work if you’re not feeling happy, healthy, whole, and connected.”
Currently, Brennan is building on last year’s foundations by looking for new ways to provide support for FGLI students. This includes efforts to include more first-generation and low-income students that may not have previously qualified for programs like First Things First (FTF) but still seek guidance throughout the year.
“Last year, [First Cardinals] was only [available for] students who participated in the FTF program,” Brennan said. “But we realized that some people were left out of that, so this year we extended [the program] to students who were invited more broadly to participate in the FTF program and we realized that there’s a lot of students who identify as FGLI but who don’t necessarily meet the requirements to attend that program.”
Moreover, by working with Ruiz, First Cardinals has been able to provide more resources for mentees and mentors on how to make the most out of the program.
“It’s important to make sure that students feel like they have a community that will hold them up and that they can contribute to holding other people up,” Ruiz said. “[It is crucial that] we’re giving students a space to process what it’s like to be at Wesleyan that’s maybe really different from their home communities.”
Some of the themes of these training sessions include being new on campus, and finding student support networks during break.
“This year we have organized the training sessions thematically so that they offer guidance that is applicable to what mentees might be experiencing during that time of year,” Brennan said. “This curriculum will continue throughout the year with a different theme each month. As the program continues, [I hope] we can keep building on this curriculum so that it is as impactful as possible.”
Though First Cardinals is only in its second year, the program’s positive impacts on the community are clear.
“Mentors and mentees are making meaningful connections,” Ruiz said. “They’re having positive conversations that [take place] regularly. Both sides of the mentorship are continually committed to maintaining it, which suggests that they’re getting something out of it.”
Looking into the future, those involved with the program hope that it will continue to grow.
“This is definitely something that needs to continue and I’m really excited for the work that will happen, but also the work that’s already been done,” Baez said. “This program was created by the efforts of students because we saw a lack of institutional support for FGLI students throughout the academic school year, so I would love for there to be continuous programs.”
Ultimately, Baez believes that programs like First Cardinals are essential resources for underrepresented students on campus.
“[It’s important to] emphasize that, just because this exists, [it] does not take weight off the administration to continuously be innovating and looking for alternative ways to support vulnerable communities on campus,” Baez said.
Jo Harkless can be reached at email@example.com.