UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

First-generation college students share struggles and strengths

Advice from panelist: You can do anything, but you can’t do everything (at least not all at once)

Panelist Flora Brown
Flora Brown shares her experiences as a first-generation college student at a recent panel discussion in the UND Memorial Union. Seated beside her is high school student and fellow panelist Makiah Selburg-Hicks. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

“Our first-generation students bring a unique perspective to our University. They are diverse. They come from backgrounds where higher education is typically not the norm. And their journey to college often is filled with challenges and obstacles. They demonstrate to other students a remarkable level of resilience, determination and a relentless passion to succeed in spite of the odds. Their presence at UND and on other campuses serves as a visible indication of a belief shared by so many. That belief is education has the ability to change lives in remarkable ways.”

Those were the words shared by UND Vice President of Student Affairs Art Malloy before he introduced a panel discussion marking National First-Generation College Celebration Day on Nov. 8 in the Memorial Union Ballroom.

UND Dean of Students Alex Pokornowski moderated the discussion that highlighted Day 3 in a series of special events organized by UND TRIO staff and others.

Dozens of high school students, current and former first-generation UND students and other guests gathered to hear the personal and heartfelt stories of five panelists. They were:

  • Flora Brown, sophomore in Kinesiology with minors in Coaching & Psychology, and a member of TRIO Student Support Services.
  • Makiah Selburg-Hicks, senior at Dunseith (N.D.) High School and participant in TRIO Upward Bound.
  • Cheyenne Munson, doctoral student in Biology.
  • Kaitlin Hazel, senior in Psychology, participant in the TRIO Ronald E. McNair Scholarship program, and vice president of UND First Gen Club.
  • Mary Feller, director of Career Development, UND School of Law, and advisor for the First Gen Club.

Here is an edited version of the discussion points and some of what the panelists had to say …

* * *

Pokornowski: Why does first-generation matter to you? And what does it mean to you to be a first-generation student?

Brown: My mother’s from Malawi, and my father’s from Jamaica. I want to be able to be the first in my family to get that degree and just inspire my younger sister.

Munson: My mom also is first-generation American, and my grandparents also did not graduate from high school. So, going to college was a really huge thing for me. It’s important to me because I’m overcoming generations of barriers set before me, and I want to inspire other people. I come from a very, very low-income background, so I didn’t even think college was going to be an option for me. I want others to see that they can pursue these careers and have a place in all kinds of different fields.

Hazel: Being a first-generation student is just a really unique experience. I also came from a low-income family, and my mom was a single parent most of my life. She struggled with her own mental health but always encouraged me to pursue a college degree. She was a big supporter of my decision to go to college, so it almost feels like she’s here with me supporting me throughout my journey.

Selburg-Hicks: My mom also was a single parent. She had me at a very young age and sacrificed so much for me. She dropped out of college and started working three jobs just to support me.

Feller: Being a first-gen is important to me. I’m currently the advisor for the First Gen Club here on campus. If looking too far ahead is too hard, I tell students just to take it day by day. There’s always a way, and there’s always help out there.

Art Malloy
UND Vice President of Student Affairs addresses the audience before a panel discussion to mark National First-Generation College Celebration Day on Nov. 8. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Pokornowski: How do you balance your work, family and social life with school?

Munson: My mom is also a single mom, but she’s disabled, so a lot of that financial responsibility to provide for her falls to me. And that meant I had to give some things up to pursue my other priorities. The biggest thing is just reminding myself that I am human. I need to give myself grace and also remind myself that I am making progress regardless of how big or small it is. Another huge tip I’ll give to high school students is that planners are so important. I sit down on Sunday night and write down everything that I need to accomplish by next Sunday.

Brown: I think the main thing is to set goals little goals. And as you start going through college, you get the hang of it. It’s going to be hard when you first get to college, but you have to keep pushing. Eventually things just balance out. And use your resources. Here, you have TRIO and a whole community of people who want to help support you.

Hazel: Balancing everything definitely can be a challenge. I also use a planner and think it’s really important to surround yourself with people who understand the same challenges you’re going through. Just meeting other students who are having similar experiences can be relieving. Being able to talk to people who really understand is helpful.

Selburg-Hicks: Let me be honest. I’m just kind of winging it. I got diagnosed with severe ADHD, so it’s very hard for me to set up plans and follow through. So what I tend to do is send 20 reminders in an hour. I have to remember to brush my teeth simple things like that. So, if you’re in high school and want a job, please don’t work more than 15 hours a week.

Feller: What I’ve learned is it’s really hard to balance your time as you get older. So I have this model that you can do anything, but you can’t do everything. Sometimes you just have to put some things a bit lower on that pedestal. Prioritize what’s most important and then swing back to those other things.

Pokornowski: Why is attending college important to you?

Hazel: When I was growing up, a lot of people didn’t think I would be where I am today. I struggled with a lot of things at home, which made my school life very difficult. But I also had a lot of people who believed in me. I had a fifth-grade teacher who was very adamant that I had to learn how to do math, even though I hated it. Those people continued to show up in my life and tell me they believed in me. So, I feel a sense of pride being where I am today in college. I also feel a sense of pride for my family.

Munson: I grew up in a very small agricultural community, and going to college was not really heard of at all. But I always knew I had this passion for wildlife and always romanticized about the idea of wildlife, museums and zoos. Those places were always too far away or too expensive for me to visit as a child, but I realized that if I did well in school, hopefully, I would be able to get a scholarship and get those experiences. College has given me the skills, knowledge and relationships to be able to get the qualifications to pursue a career in these areas.

Group at first-generation event
TRIO Programs Director Derek Sporbert (left) and UND Dean of Students Alex Pokornowski (right) flank the panelists of a recent first-generation college celebration. Panelists (left to right) are Makiah Selburg-Hicks, Flora Brown, Cheyenne Munson, Kaitlin Hazel and Mary Feller. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Pokornowski: Someone asked this from the pre-college standpoint, but others feel free to add your thoughts. How do you think college will be different than high school?

Selburg-Hicks: I’m doing a bunch of research. I want to major in Forensic Science, so I’m looking at different colleges and what it takes for that major. I’m also balancing out the tuition and seeing what everything is going to cost. It’s good to get at least a little grasp of things.

Brown: My biggest advice for my little sister and anyone else in high school is to take all those AP classes or dual-credit enrollment while you can. It’s free! And those credits transfer with you to college.

Munson: The advice I was given was you’re first-generation and you’re breaking barriers, so make sure you are proud of what you’re doing. I understand that I’m not going into a career where I’m going to be making the most money out of all my peers. I know I’ll be rich in experiences, and I think that’s more important than anything. My biggest advice is to find a program and a career that will give you a life you’ll love.

Pokornowski: The next question is for Mary … do you see first-generation students facing the same hurdles you faced as a student? Or do you think things have changed or improved?

 Fuller: I think the basic needs are still the same. It might be financial concerns that’s always a big one is how am I going to be able to afford to go to college. Or, it might be some anxiety going through school or some pressures and challenges back home that need to be worked out. I feel like what’s changed hugely for me is that when I was in college, I did not have a computer. I did not have a cellphone. I did not have email. I didn’t really know what the internet was. So when you wanted to find resources, you had to hear about it, stumble across it or just walk into the wrong building. Resources were not as readily available to students as they are now. That’s the biggest change. Now, help is right at your fingertips. If you need help for anything, it’s right there. People at UND get excited when a student asks us for help.

Pokornowski: What drives each of you to succeed?

Munson: For me, it’s wanting to achieve this dream job of working with fossils, museums and wildlife and also being able to really share my experiences with my family. A lot of them never leave our small town back home, so getting to travel and share my experiences has led to some pretty cool and unique conversations. I just want to make my family proud and show them that everything we’ve gone through was worth it.

Hazel: What really drives me to succeed is my family and especially my mom. I call her almost every day, and she’s there to cheer me on through every challenge.

Selburg-Hicks: I want to make my mother proud and make sure that all her sacrifices were worth it. When she found out I was on this program and was up here speaking, one my advisors called her and she burst into tears because she was so proud of me. I just want to keep making her proud. I want her to know that I’m going to be OK in the future without her.

Brown: When it comes to college, this was once like a dream, “We’ll talk about it.” But it never seemed like a reality for me to actually be here. Now that I’m here, it makes me realize that you actually can shoot for the stars. No matter what family background you come from, you really can make a different future for yourself. And this is not an insignificant thing, but do you notice how powerful a name sounds when you have Dr. in front of it? We have Dr. Alex Pokornowski, we have Dr. Art Malloy, Dr. Cheryl Kingsbury. It just sounds so good. I want to be Dr. Flora Brown, you know? (Insert big applause here.)

High school students
High school students attended the first-generation student panel discussion that marked National First-Generation College Celebration Day. Today, a third of all undergraduates identify as first-generation students. First-generation is defined as a student whose parents or guardians did not complete a four-year college degree. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Pokornowski: What advice would you give to other first-generation students as they prepare to enter college, graduate school or professional life?

Brown: My biggest advice is just keep pushing no matter what. If you guys would have met me in middle school, you’d be very surprised that I even stepped foot on campus. When I first got to college, the cultural mismatch was very new to me. I kind of isolated myself and did very poorly in classes. But now I’m back out meeting with advisors and teachers; don’t be afraid to do that. Utilize your resources and get the help you need.

Selburg-Hicks: This is for high school students who are going into college: Please, please, please do not stress out over it. You don’t have to be the best do the best that you can. I always shot myself down because there were people doing better. Please don’t put yourself in that position, and you always will be your greatest self.

Munson: Because of my background, I always thought I had to prove myself more than my peers. So I put a lot of pressure on myself to be the absolute best student possible. I’ve now realized that you’re worth so much more than your grades. It’s OK not to know everything right now; that’s why you’re in school. You need to talk to your professors. Go to office hours and ask questions in class. Professors really do want to help you out if you’re struggling, but they can’t read your mind. You need to let them know. Additionally, this is just a really amazing time in your life. And if you have an opportunity to travel abroad, take it. I had the chance to go to Tanzania and also to Belize. Getting research experience in those areas really helped me when I was applying to graduate school. That experience set me apart from my peers. And please make sure you also spend time doing things that are not student things. Sometimes I’ve had to remind myself that comparison is the thief of joy. Do not compare yourself to the people who are next to you. Your journey is unique and wonderful, and you’re on your own timeline.

Hazel: I think my biggest piece of advice is don’t do it alone. I know when I got here, I had no idea what I was doing. I was really ambitious and had a lot of goals, but I didn’t really know how to achieve them. And I didn’t have anyone in my life to ask, “How did you do that?” So, don’t do it alone. Look up the resources on campus. That would be with TRIO, the First Gen Club, faculty or any other resources. You don’t have to do it alone.

Feller: Do something that you’re afraid to do because that’s how you’re going to grow. Join a club, talk to someone you wouldn’t normally talk to. Expand your horizons to get to know everything that’s out there because you’re going to grow really fast. Before I came to UND, I worked a lot in financial aid. Know that if you ever run into a financial struggle, you sometimes can get creative. Maybe you can be an RA, and all of a sudden, you don’t have to worry about housing or food.