First Gen: Inspiring Stories Of MBAs Who Beat The Odds

Norma Torres Mendoza

Rice University’s Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business

Class: 2020

Hometown: Born in Queretaro, Mexico and raised in Houston, TX

Fun Fact About Yourself: In six months, I went from not being able to complete two miles to running my first half-marathon in 2 hours and 22 minutes. I will complete my third one this January in Houston, Texas.

Undergraduate School and Major:

Undergrad- Rice University majors in Political Science & Hispanic Studies

Graduate: Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Masters in Public Policy

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: IDEA Public Schools, Director of Financial Literacy & Alumni Funding

What did your parents do for a living? My mother cleans houses for a living.

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your

father? My mother has a third grade education.

Which of your family members is your biggest inspiration? Why? My mother is my biggest inspiration because she has sacrificed everything to give me an opportunity at a better life. Growing up in Mexico, my single mother held three jobs at a time to support not only me but also her parents. My mother and I were literally and figuratively hungry for a better life, one with an actual opportunity to escape the cycle of poverty that they were destined to experience. This ultimately led us to immigrate to Houston in the back of an eighteen-wheeler looking for the American Dream. My mother gave me the dream of an education, which fundamentally transformed my life and the future generations of our family. I became the first one of my 50 cousins and 16 uncles and aunts to attend and graduate from college. My mother is my inspiration and reason that I have directly and indirectly supported over 6,000 students’ educational journeys through the Young Owls Leadership Program, Café College Houston and IDEA Public Schools. This is specifically important because I believe in lifting as I climb and therefore multiplying our efforts to support more first-generation college students.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? My mother instilled in me that education is the most powerful tool we have not only to defend our rights and ourselves, but also to transform lives. With this in mind, we came to this country with the goal that I would be the first one in my family to attend college. I was extremely lucky that I had mentors, friends, phenomenal teachers, and counselors who guided my journey to apply to college. I had no doubt in my mind that I could handle the academics, and that I would acquire the social capital needed to not just survive but thrive in higher education. However, my assumptions to go to college were often questioned because of my immigration status.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? When I was applying to undergraduate programs, I was still undocumented and thus my ability to travel and receive funding was limited. I worried a lot about the school’s price tag and how I was going to be able to pay for it with my mother’s very humble salary. I applied for as many scholarships as I could find and talked to as many people as possible about alternative ways to fund my education. I was extremely lucky and blessed to find a donor who paid $250,000 for me to attend Rice University.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? Time management was the hardest part of my undergraduate degree at Rice University. I had multiple leadership positions on-campus, held two part-time jobs, created a nonprofit, and somehow maintained a high GPA. The downfall of this was very little sleep and lots of coffee consumption. In addition, I often worried about the possibility of not being able to work in this country or worse being deported. This fear only fueled my motivation to do more and better in school.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher education experience that you

wish they would understand better? Many family members operated under the assumption that going to college meant that “I had made it” and that now I didn’t have to work as many hours. The reality could not have been farther away from the truth; this only meant that I was doing different work. Instead of working in the Houston heat for 60 hours constructing roads like my uncles, I would be working 70+ hours in an office attempting to solve a problem. I would often remind my family that the education piece would many times economically pay off, but many times it granted me access to positions of power to be able to make decisions that would produce a positive NPV for our communities.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? For the past five years, I have worked as a consultant in various capacities. I have consulted businesses and non-profits on strategy, vision, impact, fundraising, community building and leadership development. I graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (HKS), where I received some of the best teaching in leadership, ethics and working with different stakeholders to bring transformational and sustainable change. However, after being in the field, I quickly realized that I was lacking core skills to create the best processes, marketing materials, financial models, and even research and strategies to create impactful investments. After speaking to a couple of people, I learned that a business degree will help me bridge business thinking into the nonprofit world while providing interconnected social solutions that are nuanced in ways that cut across sector lines.

How did you choose your MBA program?

  1. Location
  2. Network
  3. Added value and prestige of the university
  4. Fellowships and scholarships offered

Location was very important because my husband is very involved in politics in Houston, Texas and both of us have political aspirations. I talked to people from every business school that I applied to and attended some of their diversity weekends to gauge for diversity, network capabilities, financial resources and culture. In addition, I had already attended two of the schools that I had applied to so I had a foundation for those schools and spent more time exploring some of the other schools that I did not know too much about to make the most informed decision possible.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? Finances was my biggest worry given that many times as first generation college students we have the added pressure and privilege to serve as the security and financial blanket for our families. In addition, since this will be my second master’s, I took finances into account very seriously and researched plenty of scholarships and fellowships. At the end of the process, I received both the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans and the Consortium Fellowship for Rice University. At that point, it became very clear that the time investment was totally worth it to learn new skills and be a more effective leader in the intersection of public and private sectors.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first generation student?

Scholarship: 100%

I am a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow in addition to a Rice University Consortium Fellow.                 

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students?

  1. Although it is difficult to be the first at anything, there are many advantages to being a first-generation college student. There are so many scholarships and resources that are available specifically to push forward more students who are the first ones in their families to take on this very important step.
  2. I know it is hard to balance the need to make a social impact and to be financially stable, but look for spaces where you might be able to do both. You will be surprised by how many spaces you will find where you can get paid well to produce a positive impact for the world.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? After business school, I can see myself working for a consulting firm with an emphasis on social impact or beginning my own consultancy for nonprofits that will revolutionize and democratize resources for nonprofits that are improving the quality of life for various communities. In addition, in the next five years, I have political ambitions to represent Houstonians as we think about creative ways to provide interconnected social solutions that are nuanced in ways that cut across sector lines to expand opportunities.