Paying for college. Researching a major paper. Deciding a career path.

For some University of Louisville students who need help with these and other potentially overwhelming questions, advice is a text or a phone call away to a parent who also went to college.

For others, those whose parents do not have four-year college degrees, finding an answer might be trickier.

These students, known as first-generation, are the focus of a Student Success Center (SSC) initiative that began in 2019 to increase UofL’s support of first-generation students. Center staff, along with other UofL administrators, have aggressively studied the latest data and adopted national best practices to build a solid foundation on which first-generation students can flourish.

Last year, for instance, SSC joined with TRIO Student Success Services, a federally funded program to assist first-generation or low-income students or students with disabilities to complete their degrees, to host the National Celebration of First-Gen Students.

“I had never thought being a first-generation college student was something to be proud of until I was celebrated at the University of Louisville,” said Chiara Doran, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. Doran was among the first cohort of UofL students who wore honor cords at commencement to symbolize their status as first-generation students.


Students whose parents or guardians earned bachelor’s degrees are known as “continuing-generation” students. First-generation students are those whose parents or guardians did not earn four-year college degrees.

That is a definition that, before 2020, was not standard across UofL. Factors limiting the definition – such as whether parents or guardians took some college courses – left out students who possibly could have benefited from extra guidance.

“If neither of your parents/guardians earned a four-year university degree before you, then you’re a First-Gen Card, even if you have a sibling who graduated before you,” said Christy Metzger, who leads the Student Success Center’s First Year Experience & Student Success Programs team.

Nationally, the nonprofit Center for First-Generation Student Success (CFGSS) is gathering and sharing research data to guide colleges and universities with this student population.

In 2022, UofL became one of only a handful of Kentucky colleges to be recognized by the CFGSS, earning a designation as a First Forward institution. The designation acknowledges UofL’s commitment to first-generation student success.

“Through really digging into this work in a more strategic way with campus and community partners, hundreds more UofL students are getting the support they need to complete their degrees and create brighter, more secure futures for themselves and their families,” Metzger said.


In 2019, the Student Success Center partnered with UofL alumnus Chuck Denny ’75, ’80 to create the READY Mentoring program, in which PNC Bank employees were paired with first-generation, first-time freshmen for ongoing mentoring. The bank employees provided strategies and advice to help the students transition to college life and navigate what is often referred to as the “hidden curriculum” – the unspoken rules, expectations, lingo and know-how that’s a critical part of student success.

Faduma Abdirahman, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, was among the first students to be connected with a mentor through the program.

“That really helped me start to feel confident in my ability to navigate college, because he would really share his experiences and everything. … He was always there. He helped me find the resources I needed and really just went out of his way to help me,” she said.

Abdirahman, whose parents immigrated from Somalia in the 1990s and who is the oldest of three, was the first of her siblings to graduate from high school and the first to earn a bachelor’s degree. She hopes to become the first to obtain a master’s degree.

This fall, all READY mentors will be another group of First-Gen Cards: UofL faculty or staff who are themselves first-gen graduates.

“What many fail to acknowledge is that first-generation college students need someone to invigorate their courage,” said Farhiya Awale, a first-gen whose mother also emigrated from Somalia. Awale, whose campus leadership includes serving as president of the Student Organization for Alumni Relations, graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering (pre-med) and ethics certification and hopes to become a physician. “They need individuals to support them enough to get them to a point where every fiber of their being leads them to an end.”

New students are invited to become part of READY Mentoring and other first-gen focused programs during orientation. Throughout the year, the students are guided to the resources they need, knowing they always have somewhere and someone to turn to when they need a hand or encouragement.


Metzger attended a CFGSS presentation in 2019 and was so inspired by what other institutions around the country were accomplishing that six months later, UofL had changed its first-gen definition.

With the change, the number of First-Gen Cards almost doubled from 17% to 33%.

“It continues to go up,” said Metzger, who said one of the lessons learned was that visible support for first-generation students is the third most important factor in college selection for that population after location and cost.

Last spring, a group of UofL administrators attended the CFGSS Leadership Academy, further cementing UofL’s commitment to enhancing first-gen support from recruitment through graduation to eliminate disparities in undergraduate degree completion for this large student population. 

In 2023, the university’s strategic plan was updated to add as a metric increasing first-gen graduation rates.


First-Gen Cards can be undergraduate or graduate students, as well as faculty and staff. One prominent First-Gen Card is UofL’s new president, Kim Schatzel.

The SSC started outreach in late 2021 to identify first-gen faculty and staff and in 2022 started adding that call to the welcome packet given out to new employees.

A year later, some 200 faculty and staff members have self-identified as first-gen, and that number continues to rise. The SSC is creating an ongoing training program for them that will integrate strategies for support into classes and services.

“I am so happy UofL has thought of this,” School of Nursing graduate assistant Belen Zamudio Aquirre wrote to the SSC office. “It is such a wonderful idea to remind all of us that we belong here and that we are where we are supposed to be.”

The CFGSS, based in Washington, D.C., is an initiative of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) and The Suder Foundation. Using a three-tier, data-based model, CFGSS is creating a community of institutional partners to elevate and advance outcomes for first-gen students. As of April, the community included 274 institutions in 45 states plus the District of Columbia.

According to its data, when compared with continuing-generation students, first-gen students have fewer financial resources; pursue college-level education at lower rates; and attain four-year degrees at lower rates.

In addition, median career earnings for a non-college graduate are $1 million less than a college graduate, according to CFGSS.

“Addressing first-generation success has intergenerational impact, as successful college completion is a significant predictor of education, workforce and life success for the families of graduates,” CFGSS said on its website.


First-Gen Cards report that one of the biggest needs of their population is understanding financial issues to keep them from spiraling into debt.

“Speaking with my peers, I learned that, more often than not, their parents were handling taking out loans and every aspect of their finances,” said Doran, who hopes to attend law school.

Also high on their list of concerns is convincing parents and guardians that because college is a place of discovery, interests and majors change.

Senior Zachery Irvin, a first-gen who started at UofL as a nursing major, will instead graduate in 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He said he was worried his mother, a seamstress who moved to the U.S. from South Korea, would not approve of his interests away from the medical field.

“I think our relationship kind of got better after I told her I was pursuing something that I really loved and that I’m studying something that I really loved,” he said. 

Want to be part of this growing family? Now that UofL is identifying students, faculty and staff who are FirstGen Cards, it is time for alumni to get involved. Visit and fill out the form identifying yourself as a First-Gen Card. You’ll receive a lapel pin and a sticker and have the opportunity to volunteer with the Student Success Center in supporting this growing student population.

Janet Cappiello covers student success for the Office of Communications and Marketing. She has more than 30 years’ experience in journalism, including working for The Associated Press and magazines such as Vegetarian Times and Sustainability: The Journal of Record. She has been at UofL since 2014.