Christina Norris graduated in May 2021 with a bachelor’s in Family Social Science and already has set her sights on a double masters degree. But her path has been anything but conventional. The first-gen college student never stopped striving for a college degree despite health and family setbacks and life’s career detours.
Although she dropped out of high school at 16–following a pattern set by her parents–Norris got her GED at 19 and set a goal to get a college degree at the University of Minnesota. She began her academic career at Minneapolis Community and Technical College where she describes the challenges that many first-gen students face.
“When you’re a high school drop-out with no one to help guide you through this process, lost in the sea of community college students without the knowledge of how to reach out to an academic advisor, you often just take whatever classes sound appealing to you,” says Norris. “And take classes I did! I have more humanities courses than one person could ever need!”
Eventually, after several years, two babies, and time building a career, she figured out what she was doing, and finished an associate degree in Liberal Arts with more credits than she would need for a bachelor’s degree. Moving to the U of M, she initially began in the College of Liberal Arts but then discovered Family Social Science.
“I chose Family Social Science because I knew that my passion was in supporting families,” says Norris.” I did not know exactly what that looked like – so I knew that FSOS was the perfect path because it was the intersection between so many disciplines–sociology, psychology, social work–it had a little bit of everything.”
Norris’ plan was coming to fruition in the spring of 2014 but unfortunately, was interrupted in that very last semester due to a health setback.
“I was set to graduate, but I contracted Hand, Foot, Mouth disease, which, if you’re under the age of 5 is not a big deal. But if you’re 29 with two children, mid-divorce, and starting a career as I was, it is a VERY big deal,” she says. She was forced to withdraw to deal with her own health issues, resolve her marital status and stabilize her career. She might not have returned but facing new challenges as one of her children came out as transgender motivated her to not just finish her bachelor’s degree but seek a graduate degree too.
“In my attempt to find resources for my beautiful son, I found there was a lack of true resources for transgender and gender diverse children and adolescents,” she says. After reaching out to the Children’s Hospital Gender Program here in Minneapolis, and parent support groups, Norris knew that change was needed and being the agent of that change gave her the energy to come back.
“I knew I was simply going to have to get a master’s or more and fix this problem,” she says. Even though she started the semester on academic probation due to her previous issues, Norris was determined to not just finish, but apply to graduate programs.
“Applying to graduate school, especially to the U of M and to two very highly competitive programs was a terrifying concept. I had no idea if I’d even be accepted,” says Norris, who credits her children for their support and ideas. “When I wrote my social issues essay, I knew there was only one person who could truly answer the question, ‘What do we do about this problem of more resources and research for transgender children?’ So, I asked my transgender child. Looking back, I probably should have cited him as a professional resource! Wouldn’t that be something? Ten years old and already in a research paper!”
As she looks beyond commencement and to grad school, she shares advice for other first-gen students – from the practical to the heartfelt.
“When just getting started – get with your academic advisor. There is no point in taking a bunch of classes you don’t need, and your academic advisor can help you with this,” says Norris. “My biggest piece of advice from my heart is there is nothing you cannot do, and it is never too late to do it.
“I hate to sound cliché, but nothing can hold you back. Literally, nothing. I had hit the maximum of student loans for undergraduate, didn’t have a job and it was in the middle of a pandemic. I am 36 years old, and I have four children, and I will not let that stop me from moving forward. I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s not. If you don’t come from a family that knew how to work the college system, it can feel insurmountable. I still have no clue what my next step is. So, I say that to my advisor. I wish I’d said that sooner. Luckily there are more and more of us “hashtag first gens” as they call us now and I’m so excited to see what you all do. Take the world by a storm!”
Norris continues her journey next year in the master’s programs of both the School of Social Work and the School of Public Health to address health disparities faced by transgender individuals and their families. She’s even considering a doctoral degree if it will help her address the issues about which she feels so passionate. “If (when?) I decide to pursue my PhD, it’ll be here as well,” says Norris. “Let’s face it. I’ve always been a Gopher at heart, despite now being married to an UND alumni (boy, it becomes nasty when college hockey games are on)!”