Gateway Academic Advising Director a first-generation college student trailblazer
Mayen-Navarro uses her own experience to help other first-gen students navigate college
Mayen-Navarro is a trailblazer in her family.
She’s the second of eight to graduate high school. First to graduate college. First to earn a master’s degree.
But while she’s a trailblazer, she didn’t always feel like she was one. There were times when she felt like being the first meant she was last.
Such are the life and thoughts of a first-generation college student. It’s a path filled with payoff, but it can also be lonely, peppered at times with self-doubt and questions.
“When I moved in to college for the first time, I realized I was doing this fully on my own,” says Olivia. “I wasn’t sure what to bring to college, I didn’t even have a cell phone, and I packed just a suitcase. I didn’t realize all of what going to college entailed. There were times I felt alone and times I had self-doubts.
“First-generation students go through all of this on their own — because there is no one in your family who can understand it, because they’ve haven’t experienced it.”
Olivia’s family understood the value of education and encouraged her to finish high school. That was the goal: finish high school. But Olivia wanted more. She wanted a college degree. As a first-generation student, she felt her family may have been unable to see all the possibilities a college degree could provide to her.
“Being a Latina female from a traditional Mexican family, it was different from the traditional family life of a typical teen. My parents didn’t want me to go away to college. They said, ‘We support you, but why can’t you stay here in Green Bay?’ They didn’t understand me, they didn’t understand why I wanted to go to Oshkosh for college. But that’s where I felt I needed to go.”
Olivia knew leaving home to gain an education was worth it. She wanted something of her own that was apart from her family. And she did it: Olivia earned a bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education in Spanish and ELL from UW-Oshkosh and her master’s degree in Counseling from UW-Milwaukee.
Her connection to education didn’t stop there. The power of education is so important to Olivia that she is making a career of it as an academic adviser at Gateway Technical College. And, using her experiences as a first-generation college student herself, Olivia has become a champion for those who are the first in their own families seeking a college education.
“The journey is a tough one, but it helps you grow as a person and you become a better version of yourself,” says Olivia. “Education gives you freedom. With education, all these opportunities become available, and many doors open for you. You are not restricted to applying for lower paying jobs or being guided by someone else.
“Education is power. It gives you the freedom to fully live your life.”
The journey begins in Mexico
Olivia was born in Mexico and took the path to the United States many others have taken. Her father Leopoldo Navarro Gutierrez immigrated to the United States when she was a toddler, and he was able to eventually bring Olivia and the rest of his family, too. The process took nearly a decade to complete, with OIivia joining her father in Green Bay when she was 14 and entering her freshman year of high school.
Her father worked hard to support his family, Olivia said, sometimes working two jobs to make ends meet. Olivia worked hard in school, too. Despite being unable to speak English her freshman year of high school, she quickly learned and regularly made the honor roll.
A teacher, Ms. Bornbach, saw Olivia’s potential and encouraged her to apply for college – something she says she would not have thought about on her own.
“In my family, we never really talked about post-secondary education. My parents wanted me to graduate high school, earn my high school diploma and help the family. I was a good student, I always studied for my exams, I got good grades, I was never late for class. In my junior year, my teacher pulled me aside and asked me, ‘What are you going to do after high school?’ It was the first time I had thought about what I was going to do. I didn’t have any other answer than to get a job.
“She told me that I had good grades and should think about going to college. I talked to my counselor and said I wanted to be a teacher. She told me my English wasn’t good enough and a four-year college wasn’t a good fit for me. When I told my teacher, she was really upset and said, ‘No, you are good enough to go to college – I’ll help you.’”
During this time, Olivia continued to ponder whether college was the right fit for her.
“It took me a while to comprehend the opportunities. I was completely fine with my life as it was — it was all I knew. But there was this one point, when I was walking home from high school. It was really cold out, my parents couldn’t pick me up, because my dad was working late and my mom didn’t drive. I was walking, thinking about my siblings and thinking of how hard they were all working. They all worked hard, manual labor which was tough on their bodies, some in refrigeration or freezer units all day. They couldn’t always have time for their families, because they couldn’t miss a day of work.
“It hit me then. That’s why I want to go to college: to have a better life and to have options. I wanted to live the American dream — not as others were living it but my version of the American dream. I realized that to do that I needed education.”
College career begins
Helped by a Latina college recruiter, Flora Stapel, and her high school teacher, Olivia enrolled at UW-Oshkosh where she started her teaching degree. As a first-generation college student, the first few weeks were a shock to her.
“I did receive some scholarships, and whenever you receive a scholarship, you go to a dinner. But I always went by myself. When I moved into college, I brought one suitcase, like I was going on a trip — and saw other students showing up with trucks full of items, like TVs, microwaves and other items. I wasn’t prepared for my first week, too. Such as textbooks, I didn’t realize you had to buy them ahead of time.
“You begin to feel anxious and question yourself. And who do you talk to for this? No one in your family has gone through this before. And, speaking of family, you miss your family. Latinos, we come from a very family-oriented culture. The whole family experience is that you are always around people that you love, and love you — and you feel completely alone when you move away for college.”
Olivia not only survived, she thrived, earning a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree. She has passed along her experiences to two nieces, too, encouraging them to consider college and all that it has to offer. They both have followed in their aunt’s footsteps, one in UW-Milwaukee’s Nursing program and the other in UW-Green Bay’s Education program.
Olivia uses that background to help other students, most notably those seeking to gain a college degree as first-generation students.