Oct. 19, 2023

‘You belong here’

For Leyla Hussein, obtaining a degree at NDSU as a first-generation college student means creating change in the world.

“First generation students are the minority of universities and in the workforce, too,” Hussein said. “Just me simply being here at a university and at my future job will create some change in regards of having a different perspective and coming from a different background.” 

Having those different perspectives available is important to Hussein because it sparks ideas on what is needed to improve things.

“If you think about different services that organizations provide, a lot of them target different demographics, and a lot of those demographics come from first-generation college students and minorities,” she said. “So how are we able to build something for a group of people if those people are not a part of the change?” 

The junior from San Diego, California, recalled the challenges she faced when transitioning from high school to college. Some included balancing school and life, along with feeling like she didn’t belong. Hussein said she was able to overcome those challenges when she reached out for help from upperclassmen students. 

Two of Hussein’s mentors are NDSU alumni Sadiyo Hassan, a 2022 computer engineering graduate, and Suleka Abdi, a 2023 computer science graduate. Hussein said Hassan helped her with getting comfortable on campus by showing available opportunities, while Abdi provided advice on internships and preparing for future careers. 

In addition to the advice she received from her peers, Hussein also credits resources on campus for helping her along the way. Hussein received the cultural diversity tuition waiver, which alleviates some of the financial burden of college, and was a big factor in her decision to choose NDSU.

“I don’t have to stress about how I’m going to cover tuition or loans. The cultural diversity tuition waiver has been very helpful for me when pursuing higher education at NDSU,” she said.

Hussein received support from TRIO Student Support Services throughout her freshman year. The program provides services and support for students from diverse backgrounds, including undergraduate, income eligible, first-generation students and students with disabilities.

Additionally, Hussein found support in the NDSU Office of Multicultural Programs where she said staff have helped her immensely. 

“When I walk in there, they always acknowledge me and hear me and value me,” she said. “I know that they believe in me, which is helpful, and they tell me that every day when I go in that office. So, I definitely received a lot of support over there.” 

Kaelen Napoleon, the diversity and inclusion coordinator with the Office of Multicultural Programs, said Hussein is often the go-to student staff contact to share her NDSU experience with prospective multicultural students.

“She’s that involved and she’ll motivate and encourage other students to not be afraid of college,” Napoleon said. “She’s just really amazing and very supportive. She understands who she is enough to explain to students like ‘this is how you can do college and don’t be afraid because there’s people here to support you.’”   

All students are welcome to stop by the Office of Multicultural Programs located in the Memorial Union, whether it’s to talk to someone they can connect with, or to learn more about the work the office does.   

Some services the Office of Multicultural Programs provides include referring students to academic support services, helping them access scholarships and advising students on how to visit with instructors. Students are also encouraged to join a student organization to help network and build the skills and knowledge they need to be successful after college.  

Hussein was able to find a sense of community on campus by joining the Somali Student Association, where she later became president. 

“Having an opportunity to showcase my culture and make space for people who look like me, and who come from the same culture and background made my first two years of college so easy,” she said. “I felt like I definitely built a community on campus just being present in those clubs.”

Being the former president of SSA also led Hussein to change her major to management communication as she found a passion for being in leadership positions. 

Hussein wants prospective first-generation students to know that they belong at NDSU, and to be confident in whatever they want to do. 

“One thing I would make prominent to first-generation college students is that they belong here,” she said. “I would just let them know that everywhere you go, regardless of your major, you belong here. At moments it will feel challenging. At moments it will feel impossible, but that will just shape your incredible journey for the rest of college and for the rest of your life.”

Her advice for first-generation students is to strive for greatness. 

“Strive for the biggest thing that you can,” she said. “If you have an internship in mind for NASA, apply to it. If you want to become a diplomat, go for it. If you want to be a doctor, you can do it because everything is possible. It will definitely be challenging, but it’s worth it at the end. Just know that you can do it.”

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