UISG honors first-generation college students at ‘I’m the First’ event

First-generation college students were celebrated on April 13 at the IMU for ‘I’m the First,’ a student-led event focused on telling the stories of, and honoring, first-generation college students.


Katie Goodale

Aralia Ramirez addresses the audience during the First Gen Summit in the Main Lounge of the IMU on April 13, 2019. Vice President for Student Life Melissa Shivers moderated a panel of first generation undergraduates and graduates to discuss their experience being a first generation student at the university. (Katie Goodale/The Daily Iowan)

Annie Fitzpatrick, News Reporter

When Yolanda Norman took the stage to tell her personal journey through higher education as a first-generation student, students and faculty listened to a story of resilience and courage much like their own.

First-generation students at the University of Iowa were invited to celebrate their journeys in higher education at the IMU on April 13 in the “I’m the First” First-Generation Summit. UI Student Government hosted the event, held for the second time this year.

The student-led event featured keynote speakers, a task force discussion, and opportunities for students to share their stories in higher education. One-fourth of UI undergraduate students identify as first-generation, and the UI said this summit’s goal is to increase support and outreach for students on campus.

Award-winning educator, poet, and public speaker Donovan Livingston, the a event’s keynote speaker, told The Daily Iowan that “visibility is everything” for first-generation students.

Livingston, while not a first-generation student himself, said that he saw the experience of being a first-generation student through his parents’ experience in higher education and how that manifested in their adult lives. Livingston said that seeing his parents’ experience inspires him in his career as an educator to encourage students in higher education.

“I think if higher education is going to be sort of an elastic institution, something that stretches with our growing and evolving country, it needs to be able to serve the needs of students who are first-generation in a marginalized backgrounds,” he said.

As an educator, Livingston said that he wants to elevate student’s stories. This not only encourages students individually, he said, but it provides a collective solidarity and builds a community of togetherness among students.

Norman, a cooperative education program manager at the University of Houston, was also a keynote speaker at the event. A first-generation college student herself, Norman said that she saw college as an opportunity and education as a way to change her life.

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“I wanted to get out of the place and environment I was in, and this was my ticket,” Norman said.

She initially saw her identity as a first-gen student as a stigma, she said. Once she found a community of people who were also first-generation students, she saw the importance of her story.

UI sophomore Nicole Tay said her college experience has largely been shaped by her identity as a first-generation college student. She said being the first in her family to attend college, navigating the applications and understanding the Big Ten university “lingo” was challenging, but her parents’ support helped her to push through.

“That motivates me … the lessons that all of our parents taught us, that pushes us to continue our degree,” she said.

Tay said that having events such as “I’m the First” is encouraging and helpful to build a community of first-generation college students at the UI.

“The fact that there are students here that are like leading this organization and this event — this is a lot of work to put on, and we’re really grateful for it,” she said.

The tradition that UI students are setting for first-generation students is a great foundation for future college students, Livingston said, and the event gives the power to the individuals that universities are made for.

“If you know there’s a legacy of first-generation college student success in this place, it becomes a new safe haven for this community for years to come,” he said.