Daum instills belonging in fellow first-gen Huskers

· 11 min read

Daum instills belonging in fellow first-gen Huskers

Taylor smiles for a photo outside Love Library
Taylor smiles for a photo outside Love Library.

Editor’s Note — This is the first of a weekly student conversation series highlighted for Women’s History Month on the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Medium page. The series will feature students who are making impacts on campus and hope to maintain that momentum in future careers.

Taylor Daum is an English major with a minor in geography from Emerson, Nebraska. As a first-generation college student, she faced challenges before she even stepped foot on campus. After leveraging on-campus resources, getting involved and seeking out leadership positions, she’s dedicated to ensuring students across campus know they belong.

Talk about your experience as a first-generation college student.

The funny thing is, I didn’t know I was a first-generation student until I arrived at UNL. My mom told me to sign up for a program she had heard about the summer before my first year called First Huskers, put on by the CAST office (Center for Academic Success and Transition). We didn’t really know what it was, but it allowed me to be able to move in early and have a seminar class with peer mentors — a connection I would later learn was so crucial in my success on campus. Arriving at the opening ceremony of the program, it helped so much to know there were other students (and families) who were just as overwhelmed and confused as I was. I am so glad I connected with the first-gen community early by joining the First-Gen RSO, and later becoming a peer mentor with the First Huskers Program. I truly wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t have this group of individuals to lean on for support. I found my home in the first-gen community and I just love being able to help other first-gen students. I want them to know they’re not alone, that they belong here and it’s safe to show up exactly as they are.

Why is it important for you to give back to fellow first-gen Huskers as a First Husker peer mentor?

It’s just what we do. When you’re first-gen, learning all these hard lessons, the first thing you want to do is share what you’ve learned and hopefully make it easier for someone else and help the person coming up behind you. This is one of the things I love the most about the first-gen community. For me personally, I love the idea of “being who I needed when I was younger.” I may not have made it through college if I didn’t have people to answer my questions and help me get back up when I fell down (which I did a lot). I had awesome peer mentors (shoutout to Hunter and Kimimi) when I was a freshman, and I wanted to be just like them. I wanted to be able to support my students like they supported me. I’ve had two amazing years working with some really incredible students and I’m really going to miss making those connections after I graduate.

How has being part of the first-generation student organization impacted your college experience?

I am president of the First-Gen RSO. This is my second year serving as president and I’ve been part of the RSO since my freshman year. It’s probably the thing I’m most proud of in my college career. I love this group so much and I will always hold a special place in my heart for the students we’ve connected with. All we really want to do is create spaces where first-gen students can just gather and be themselves and be honest about any issues they’re facing. We love helping each other when we can. And we wanted our club to be a place we could just relax and have fun, so a lot of our events are stress-free — things like painting canvases (or gnomes), grabbing ice cream at the Dairy Store, or hosting movie nights in an auditorium. One of my favorite events was taking a group of first-gen students to see the Broadway show, “Come From Away,” at the Lied Center. And just this weekend, we took a group to cheer on the Husker Women’s Basketball team vs. Iowa. Simply being able to provide all of these free opportunities to our first-gen students feels so wonderful. We’re making connections and memories that will last a lifetime.

Can you speak to the work you’ve done on the EVC’s Student Advisory Board?

I’ve served on the EVC’s Student Advisory Board representing first-generation students since I was a sophomore (minus last semester due to a class conflict). My position as president of the First-Gen RSO is one of the reasons I was asked to serve on the board, and I am honored to have this platform to advocate for first-gen students on our campus. At UNL, one-quarter of students are first-gen, and there are a large number of faculty and staff who identify as first-gen as well. As this population continues to increase, it’s so important for campus leadership to understand the first-gen experience and how many barriers exist for them. So many times, leadership will do a quick survey, pull together a focus group of students, or consult the student government, and they think they have a good read on the first-generation student experience. But so often, those survey respondents and those focus group participants and those student government reps are representative of only a small portion of the actual student body. What about the first-gen students who are also low-income — working two to three full-time jobs on top of being a full-time student just to pay tuition? What about the first-gen students who commute from home because they’re taking care of three younger siblings while their parents both work two jobs? I’m one of those students, and there are so many more of us than people think. It’s so important for us to have a seat at the table with campus leadership. It’s important for us to have a voice.

You also provided support for Huskers who tested positive for COVID-19. Can you talk about that?

My support for Huskers who tested positive for COVID-19 was something totally random that developed out of the pandemic. One of my multiple campus jobs at the time was working for Central Housing-Residence Life. It was just an office job — taking calls, distributing mail, making copies, any little projects or assignments that came along. But then the pandemic came along, and the office I worked for was tasked with creating isolation housing, and with that came figuring out procedures, setting up a process, hiring and training workers, etc.

I’ve been a volunteer firefighter and first responder since I was 16, back in my hometown of Emerson, so I think some of that training kicks in. You get organized, get to work, keep people safe, deal with the situation as it comes. I think I’m good at being able to stay calm under pressure and take on a lot, and I think maybe I was in the right place at the right time to be able to help with the COVID-19 response with isolation housing. It’s one of those things that just sort of snuck onto my resumé, but I think it’s something important and I’m proud of my work and the way the university responded during the pandemic.

You’ve also been a part of New Student Enrollment for a few years. What is it like to be able to play a part in welcoming new students to campus?

I’ve been a member of the NSE fam for three years now. My sophomore year, I applied and was accepted to be an Orientation Leader — the frontlines of welcoming new students to campus. My junior year, I was a Support Specialist, helping to train the new year’s Orientation Leaders, and now my senior year, I am a Resolutions Specialist, playing more of a role on the backend, making sure students are able to make their way through the pre-advising steps and are getting signed up for an orientation date. I’ve loved being a member of this team welcoming incoming students to our campus, especially being able to help those first-generation students who, like me when I was an incoming freshman, have no idea where to even begin the process. Being able to be that reassuring voice either in person, on the other end of a phone call, or email chain, will always be fulfilling for me. It’s an honor for me to be able to make this transition less difficult and scary for incoming students (and their families).

You won a Student Luminary Award in 2022 for your work on campus. Talk about what it felt like to be recognized for your work.

When I found out I was being recognized for the work I’ve done on campus, I immediately felt I didn’t deserve it and thought of the many other students who deserved it so much more than I did — classic imposter syndrome. I especially felt out of place when I heard how fancy the banquet was going to be. I had never been to an event like this before, let alone being recognized at one, so there were a lot of panicky outfit changes beforehand. Plus, it was in the College of Business, so it was extra shiny. However, it was at this event all my worlds were combining.

All these different people who played some sort of role in getting me to this point were coming together in one place — my housing family, NSE, CAST and even my mom. My home and school lives before this event were very separate. Even my school lives between areas of campus were very separate. And in some ways, it didn’t feel real because, for the first time, my many different worlds were finally interacting with each other. It’s hard to explain, but in this moment, I couldn’t even wrap my head around the fact that I was winning a Luminary Award. I was actually more focused on how incredible it was that all of my people were in one place with me. All the fuss over panicked outfit changes and my worry about how fancy the event was faded away because all these people I admire and respect took up all the space in the room.

Is there anything you hope to accomplish in your lifetime?

I’ve become so passionate about education and the first-generation student experience…I would love to continue working to make higher education more equitable and inclusive. First-gen, low-income, and BIPOC students are still lagging behind in graduation rates and being able to successfully navigate higher education, and it’s not because anything is wrong with them as students. They are just as brilliant and capable and motivated as anyone else. The issues and barriers they face are often because the system itself was not designed for them or with them in mind, so it’s no wonder they’re having trouble with it. First-gen students, in particular, are burdened with having to figure out college on their own, but also trying to translate and explain their experiences to their families.

I want to see colleges and universities actually evolve and become places that are truly student-centered and able to meet all students where they are when they arrive on campus, which means they need to stop assuming/requiring that students already have some baseline knowledge of what college is about or how it works when they arrive. This is going to take a pretty big shift in mindset from campus leadership — to let go of the old structures and processes and policies that are no longer valuable or sustainable in our modern world and really embrace and support the new generations of students who are arriving on campus — but it’s a shift that is greatly needed and would likely end up benefitting all students. I’d love to be part of this shift.

What or who inspires you?

I’m incredibly inspired by people who help others, and not just when others are watching or when they think they will get some kind of recognition for it. Helping someone else shouldn’t be self-serving or a competition. It should just be something we do for each other, and I’ve been lucky to know some people on campus who are really good at doing just that (shoutout to the CAST and NSE teams for being these people here at UNL).

What is your advice to other students looking to make an impact on campus?

First, I never in a million years saw myself being where I am today — a small-town girl who didn’t know she was going to college until she was already on campus working in so many important offices, being so involved, and pushing for change. I never saw myself making it past my first year because I felt so much like a number — invisible. I knew it was a long shot, but I needed that feeling to change and not only for myself. I didn’t want anyone else to have to feel that way either. So, the work started.

But the thing to keep in mind when you’re trying to make an impact on campus, especially a Big Ten campus, when you are passionate and care about something so deeply, it’s easy to let it consume you. You forget to take care of yourself. It’s really great to work hard and make an impact and do all the things on campus, but you have to find time for yourself and maintain boundaries and a healthy life balance, which could mean saying no every now and then or actually having the courage to step away from something. Cars don’t run on empty and neither do humans.

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