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A first-generation college student: Maybell Romero

August 29, 2018

“I’m a First-Gen College Student” will bring together first-generation students, faculty, staff and recent alumni with Welcome Events from 4 to 6 p.m. Sept. 4 and from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 5 at Founders Memorial Library.

To help launch the program, we’re telling just some of the many first-generation stories here at NIU.

Maybell Romero

Maybell Romero

Maybell Romero almost didn’t make it through her first year of college.

At the age of 17, she’d moved from Long Beach, California, to Ithaca, New York, to attend Cornell University, with plans to become a doctor or lawyer.

“I’d looked around and saw what was going on in the neighborhood and came to realize that, first off, education was the one way I could get out of there,” said Romero, an assistant professor of law at NIU, “and if I wanted to do some sort of service for my community and make places like this better I needed to go to school.”

Romero’s mother, who’d immigrated from Costa Rica as a teenager, had wanted her daughter to go to college, but expected her to stay close to home.

She’d raised Romero and her two sisters as a strict single mother, cleaning houses and working in factories to support her family. All along, she’d emphasized the importance of education.

Wanting distance from the neighborhood she grew up in, Romero secretly applied to Cornell and earned enough grants, scholarships and loans to make the move on her own. It would take her mother several months before she’d even speak to her again.

Romero felt alone, isolated, surrounded by what seemed like “a different universe” of people. “They were overwhelming white and well-to-do,” she remembered.

That first New York snow almost did her in. It had snowed overnight, and she had a 7:45 a.m. calculus class.

“It was painful. I had never had a winter ever in my life. Going outside and breathing in the air, it was beautiful, but it hurt because it was so cold,” Romero remembered. “I didn’t have the right clothes, and I wasn’t prepared… I just started to cry. ‘What am I doing? This is awful.’”

But she was stubborn and refused to give in.

“There’s no growth in that,” she told herself. “Good things aren’t always easy.”

After that first year, she got to know people, realized, “Everyone had difficulties, hard experiences in life.”

She went on to earn her Bachelor of Arts degree in 2003 and a Doctor of Law Degree from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law in 2006. During a decade of practice in Utah, she worked as both a state’s attorney and defense attorney, where she also handled child welfare and civil litigations matters.

She later became a visiting professor at the J.Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University before joining the NIU law faculty in 2017.

Romero considers herself lucky to have been given the resources she needed in high school to pursue college and to have the encouragement of at least one teacher. The teacher told her, “I think you’re bored,” and challenged her with advanced studies.

“If there hadn’t been that one teacher, everything would have turned out differently,” she said.

Today, she hopes to be there for others, especially first-generation students.

“They’ve got to know they’re not alone,” she said. “They’re going to perhaps feel awkward and overwhelmed. What they should realize is it’s not just them. Lots of other people are out there in the same boat. Even if you don’t think they might be, they are.

“A lot of your professors are in the same boat as well. Chat with them during office hours. The resources are out there. They might not always be in your face, but they’re there.”

Enjoy food, music and giveaways and hear stories about the personal experiences of those who were the first in their families to attend four-year colleges at Welcome Events on Sept. 4 and 5 at Founders Memorial Library.

Learn about the resources available here, including the Breaking Barriers bi-weekly support group for first-generation college students, the Mentoring Valuable Peers program, future career events, supportive and accessible NIU policies, financial aid and scholarship information and more.

Are you a first-generation faculty or staff member? Drop in to a Welcome Event and take home a laminated “I am a first gen college graduate” door decoration to put in your office. Let first-generation college students know they’re not alone and support is available.