Texas Tech University

First-Gen Alumna Finds Success Through Texas Tech’s Waco Site

April 18, 2024

First-Gen Alumna Finds Success Through Texas Tech’s Waco Site

Norma Benitez-Montelongo and her husband run a booming floral and event planning business in Waco, where she completed her college degree without leaving home.

Raised in a small town outside of Waco, Texas, Texas Tech University alumna Norma Benitez-Montelongo grew up as a first-generation American in the U.S. with her parents and two older brothers. One of her fondest memories, and perhaps most influential childhood activities, was gardening. Her parents always had gardens, so plants and flowers have been a lifelong attraction for her. But young Norma couldn't have known just how important that passion would become in her life. 

Growing up and going into college, Norma thought she was going to be a teacher. She began attending a community college just over an hour from home, but she became ill for a while and had to move back home to Waco, where she soon got a job. 

Full Family
Norma's family doubled in size in 2016 when her aunt passed away, and her parents adopted Norma's three young cousins.

She was not to be deterred by a less-than-encouraging start to higher education. She finally chose to pursue a degree through Texas Tech's regional site in Waco. That would allow her to live at home and continue to work while taking a hybrid of in-person and online courses without leaving the Waco area.  

“Honestly, it was the flexibility that drew me to it (the online program),” Norma said. “Being able to take these classes while working was a huge deal. I specifically did everything through Texas Tech Waco for that reason. Having supportive people in an office, even if I wasn't in a classroom that semester, I could still go to them, and they would help. I could have support and face-to-face access.”  

And she needed all the help she could get. Being a first-generation college student, Norma didn't know what she didn't know and wasn't even sure who or where to ask, indicating that mostly “it's just been learning as you go.” 

“I feel like that's just been my whole life. When I first started school, I didn't have anybody to look to, to even ask, ‘Hey, where do I go to register for classes?' I didn't even know that I needed to go to advising every semester. I had no idea. It was something I was learning as I went.” 

That method worked well for her. In December 2018, Norma was the first person in her family to graduate from a university, however, not in education or teaching. But the story is getting ahead of itself.  

Norma in front of the TTU seal
Norma was the first one in her family to graduate from a university.

Firmly Rooted in Education 

Norma says upon starting at Texas Tech, she “wanted to study everything,” so a general studies track made the most sense. In the hybrid program, a student chooses three areas of concentration instead of a major and minor. Pursuing concentrations in political science, sociology and history, Norma chose many of her political science courses and a couple of her history classes to be in person. She is quick to say how engaging her instructors and professors were in Waco, and how helpful they were at the regional site. 

One of her favorites was Rebecca Larsen, an assistant professor of practice in the Department of Political Science. Larsen remembers Norma as committed and tenacious. 

“Norma faced challenges and setbacks during her time studying at Texas Tech in Waco. She faced them with determination and asked for help,” Larsen said. “It can be hard to ask for help and advice as a student. It can feel like you are supposed to know everything. I deeply respected this about Norma, and it paid off well for her.”  

Accidentally Abroad 

Norma started at Texas Tech in 2015 and did find her way to her adviser's office. One day when she had been visiting with her adviser, she offhandedly picked up a brochure about Texas Tech's study abroad programs.  

“I took it just to look at because it piqued my interest,” Norma explained.  “And I applied for it on a whim — I didn't realize I was committing to the program before figuring out later on what I had done!” 

Luckily, with the help of her family, Norma made sure she had the funds for that international trip. She studied in Seville, Spain, in the summer of 2016, which also is where she would end up marrying Frankie Montelongo several years later in a stunning destination wedding. 

The fact that the advising office is available for students to go to in person and, even accidentally, find life-changing information is not lost on Norma.  

“To have the opportunity to see something small like that brochure was huge. It was a really big trip for me at the time,” Norma exclaimed with her eyes wide. “I was the first person I knew to go to Europe because of that study abroad opportunity. And that's where we took our entire family for our wedding in 2023, to go see and experience where I had studied abroad.” 

Norma and Frankie with a priest on their wedding day. Norma and Frankie kiss in front of a carriage on their wedding day.
Norma and Frankie had their dream wedding in Seville, Spain in 2023, where she had studied abroad in 2016.

Romance Blossoms 

When Norma returned from her study abroad trip late that summer, she began hanging out regularly with a couple of friends. One of them eventually invited a cousin, Frankie, who became a regular in their group.  

“After the first couple of times, Norma and I kept talking then hanging out every time they were all hanging out,” Frankie said, smiling. “We started seeing each other every day and became best friends. We officially started dating in October of 2016.” 

Growing Interest in Mental Health 

After graduation Norma became interested in psychology. But she also had begun struggling with her own mental health, trying to handle the many transitions in her life after finishing her undergraduate degree. 

“It was very hard for me because you go from being a student for 18-plus years to adulthood and getting a job within a couple of months,” Norma explained. “I found myself at a job that was mentally draining. Then the pandemic happened, and I went from being new in the workforce to working from home. That is when I was diagnosed with depression.”  

That's also when another seed was planted. 

An Accidental Success 

Frankie would take flowers from the grocery store to Norma, regularly, each week, which she would then arrange in a vase — a process that helped her feel better. 

One week he popped into the store and saw some beautiful tulips. He thought they were so pretty, he decided to purchase them in addition to the flowers he'd already chosen. 

“It was the highlight of my week, getting the flowers and arranging them in the vase, especially at a time when I was having a hard time mentally,” she said, welling up just a little. “That's also part of the reason the mental health aspect is really important to me.  

“Because he gave me extra flowers that week, I decided to give some to a friend. I asked, of course, if it was OK, Frankie said, ‘Yes, do what you want; I just wanted to buy them because they were so pretty!' I arranged them in a vase, gifted them to her, and I posted it all on my personal Facebook page.” 

Serendipitously, that happened about a week or so before Mother's Day. Norma started getting messages from friends asking if she could make their Mother's Day arrangements. That sent her scurrying to grocery stores, hurriedly making bouquets with grocery store flowers to make other people's celebrations just right, fertilizing the seed of possibility of a flower business.  

Norma further explained how her business blossomed from just an idea and involved international travel. Frankie proposed to her in Paris in October 2019, as her study abroad experience several years prior had given her the travel bug, which she gladly passed to Frankie. In the City of Light, she noticed the concept of using street carts to sell things, carts that are attached to bicycles.  

"I loved the cart idea so much; I knew I wanted to have a business with a bike and cart theme. At the time I just didn't know what it was going to be,” Norma explained, a grin spreading across her face. “Then the tulips and the Mother's Day thing happened; that was May 2020. I connected the dots, officially opening Norma's Blooming Bike in November when the flower cart was completed, and Frankie and I did our first pop-up at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market.

Norma's Bike in front of the Silos

So, without any formal training in horticulture or business, Norma turned to her “learn-as-you-go” method of success she had relied on most of her life. When she first started with the flower business, she was completely immersed. All her effort and energy went into figuring it out. 

Stems of Encouragement

Norma admits that when she started her flower business, she wasn't in a good space mentally, but she saw how helpful the flowers were for her. She reached out to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) with an idea.  

“When I first reached out to NAMI-Texas, I only intended for there to be resources, maybe in the corner of the flower shop, for people who might be struggling with mental health,” Norma said. “Just to keep that open door, to let people know, ‘Hey, if you need help, the flower shop is like a bridge to connect you to professionals that know what they're doing.'” 

It was a case of “be careful what you ask for.” When Norma reached out, NAMI let her know there was no chapter in Waco. They offered, if she had the capacity to do it, to have her spearhead a local chapter. Having the capacity would be the determining factor.    

At this point, Frankie's job had shut down. The entire company he was working for closed. 

Norma said luckily the flower shop was at the point where she was contemplating having to hire some extra help. Instead of that, she asked Frankie to come to work with her full-time, then she could also have the capacity to say yes to NAMI's offer. 

“Knowing he would be helping, us doing it together, gave us the capacity to say yes to NAMI. It's something I've always been passionate about, so that's kind of how we started the NAMI Waco chapter here in town.” 

 Norma explained that in their new role with NAMI, they give away flowers that are leftovers or ones used for photo shoots or other events, with attached cards provided by NAMI, that carry encouraging messages on them.  

“This is a way we can spread the word. You get something pretty like a flower, and we get the word out that NAMI is available for support groups or again, that connection to other resources,” Norma explained.  

“We say our mission with Norma's Blooming Bike is advocating for mental health with the flowers. We're leading a lot of those resources now in Waco. We go to college campuses — Baylor is close, but we're doing a couple more rounds so we can go to the Texas Tech offices, and there's a Tarleton campus in town as well.”  

Young couple looking at flowers. Norma in her shop. Young lady looking at flowers as two other females look on.
Norma uses her floral business to advocate for mental health.

Experience in Full Bloom 

Coming full circle to Texas Tech's Waco site, Norma reflected on the lessons she learned beginning nearly a decade ago. 

“I would honestly say it was the discipline to be able to sit down and do your work at an allotted time and complete it. When you're online, you really need that,” she said with a serious tone. “That's what truly has prepared me – that discipline to do the work and work toward the goal that I have, which then was to graduate. Now it's to run an even more successful business.” 

Both her political science instructor and Frankie saw the discipline, determination and drive as Norma grew in her education and her life experience.  

“Through her own hard work and tenacity, she accomplished an impressive goal and has continued to utilize this same determination in her successes today,” Larsen said. “I am so proud that Norma was one of my students and I am not surprised that she is contributing positively to her community.”  

Frankie says those qualities were what attracted him to her from the beginning, but that she was also a dreamer. A BIG dreamer. 

“Growing up, I never dreamed like Norma dreamed,” Frankie said excitedly. “She's had huge dreams, like this big destination wedding with flowers, traveling with her family, our families — having them experience traveling to Europe, that big expansion of your mind — she wanted other people to experience that. She is very driven. She knew what she wanted from the get-go. She's taught me a lot.” 

Growth for the Future 

Like a flourishing garden that overtakes its bed, Norma's Blooming Bike has outgrown its capacity. Norma and Frankie are rebranding to a storefront shop, now called Norma's Florals.  

“Since we're now a flower shop, and because it started out as a flower cart, we're currently rebranding because ‘Norma's Blooming Bike' stamped on a flower shop sounds a little weird. We get calls all the time asking if we're a bike shop,” she said, chuckling and shaking her head. 

 “And since this is now our full-time income, it's given us the ability to just focus on this. Frankie's in charge of the flower shop and the flower cart pop-ups that we still do. I'm in charge of the wedding side. We are branching into luxury wedding design. So, over-the-top, huge floral installations. That will be the goal for the future, to be a very, very busy luxury florist.” 

But Norma wants to give back to current and future college students by way of possible internships or other work arrangements, although she doesn't yet have a clear picture of what exactly that will be. She wants to have the students tell her what they want to gain out of the experience and allow them to decide. For students who may be non-traditional in some way, or first-generation, still deciding on the direction of their education, she also has advice, guiding them to options at Texas Tech's Waco site. 

“My first instinct is to say, ‘Just JUMP!' Just take the leap. You don't know what will happen unless you jump in and try it,” Norma said excitedly. “And once you're in there, things will show up. The people that you need. The resources you need. Yes, sometimes you have to do a little digging, and that's OK, it will make you as an individual prouder than you can explain.” 

Norma's Florals

Texas Tech Now