We are honored and excited to have our friend, supporter, and advocate for first-generation college students, Yolanda Norman, share her experience about being the first in her family to attend college and how a change of mindset propelled her into finding her voice and belonging. Yolanda is now a doctoral student who uses her platform to inspire and encourage other first-generation students to persist through challenges on their higher education journey. She is an entrepreneur, mother, and a first-generation college student success story who is lending her expertise to the below questions. Fasten your seat belt as Yolanda shares her personal story of finding success and gives tips on how to feel like #YouBelong.
As a first-generation college student, what struggles exist?
When I left home for college, understanding my identity as a black, female, and a first-generation college student wasn’t complicated, but it most certainly was complex. Being a black female was an identity I explored before college, but the added pressure of being a low-income, first-generation college student made me question my place on campus every chance I got. My freshmen year was full of bad grades, uncertainty, shame, doubt, and a whole lot of fear.
“Why am I doing this? I can’t afford this. I don’t belong here. My mom has no idea what college is like? I have no one to talk to.”
College life was such an unknown to me and it seemed that everyone around me had it all together.
How did you overcome those struggles and how did you persist?
I went through both my freshmen and sophomore years thinking negative thoughts almost daily and truly believed I was the only one on campus who felt invisible. It wasn’t until my junior year of college that I heard the term “first-generation college student” in a workshop.
“Wait a minute, you mean that there are other people on this campus who feel the exact same way I do? Not everyone’s parents have a college degree?”
I wasn’t alone anymore and that was when my mindset started to change. I started reaching out to my advisors, coaches, dean, professors, and friends more about what I was feeling. Suddenly, I found a support group that I never knew existed. Here I was thinking I had to do everything all alone so others wouldn’t think I was an imposter and what a joy it was to discover that college was about seeking guidance, support, and a helping hand when I needed it. I knew my college education was an important step for me to make a better life for my family and to know that there were others who understood my voice…it was incredible.
How can we ensure we are helping other first-generation students?
My experience as a first-generation college student has taught me that first-generation college students need to understand they are not alone when they face challenges. Daily (and I do mean daily) I see these trailblazers expressing frustration, confusion, and sometimes anger with the identity on social media. However, I also come across those students who take time to express pride, joy, and excitement about embarking on a journey that no other generation before them had achieved. We can begin supporting students by first listening to them and identifying who they are. Colleges and universities have a unique responsibility to adopt an official definition that focuses on inclusion and shares that definition with all students. Resources such as TRIO, First Year Experience courses, First-Generation College Student organizations, and other student success initiatives exist on college campuses, and we as professionals have to continue to reach out and connect students.
Where you are now?
Today, I am in my final year of my doctoral program focused on…you guessed it…first-generation college student success. In my role as CEO of FirstGenCollege Consulting, LCC, I strive to help colleges, universities, nonprofit organizations, school districts, and families understand the important and unique needs of first-generation college student success. Finding time to connect with students on my campus, social media, public speaking, and advising has been such a rewarding experience just to know that my story can help someone understand that they can succeed. As a mom, wife, student, higher education professional, entrepreneur, and anything else I can fit on my plate, my passion for student success is one that refuels me daily.
What advice do you have for other first-gen students pursing higher education?
You can do this! Challenges WILL come and you WILL push through them. Do not think you have to do this all alone and take advantage of the services you are offered on campus, many of which you are already paying for in your student fees. 😊 Feel free to connect with me on Twitter @FirstGenCollege if you ever need a little extra support.
Biggest lessons learned, advice for others?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that my voice as a student is powerful and collectively our voices as first-generation college students can change an entire campus community. If you don’t see the support on campus you need, say something. Schedule an appointment with the dean, your professor, or director of student success. We as higher education professionals cannot become more efficient in our roles if we don’t understand the challenges you are facing as a student. Don’t hesitate to use your voice to communicate what challenges you are facing and let’s work together to address them. I’m rooting for you, pioneer!
Yolanda Norman is a PROUD first-generation college student. As the CEO of FirstGenCollege Consulting, LLC, her focus is to amplify the voices of first-generation college students around the world and teach others about the tools necessary to support these pioneers to and through college. Yolanda is both honored and humbled to share her experience during Black History Month as a black educational pioneer.