Kaitlyn Norman’s teen years weren’t easy. Placed into the foster care system, she bounced around to different families and high schools  ̶  a tough background to emerge from with success. She’s graduating this month from The University of New Mexico with her Bachelor of Music in Performance.

Norman was thrown into the foster system when her mother relapsed into drug addiction.

“Eventually things escalated to a violent tipping point, the police were called, and my mother and her boyfriend were arrested,” she recalled.

Foster homes were chaotic.

“When you’re 13 and in custody, you’re viewed as dangerous and unstable. Because you are a teenager, people don’t feel comfortable opening their homes,” she observed.

Norman ended up shifting between four different high schools in Albuquerque before graduating from Manzano.

“It was a crazy traumatic time in my life. For a long time, people didn’t think I’d graduate from high school.”

Yet, in high school, she discovered a solid anchor in music, taking guitar lessons, symphonic band, music theory, piano, choir, and marching band, playing flute, saxophone, trombone, French horn, and percussion.

“Every high school I was in I was involved in music. I did any music activity I could get my hands on. It cemented in me the drive to keep going.”

Her perseverance and talent finally offered her a ticket to UNM.

“There is a stigma surrounding foster kids and it’s a hard thing to battle, of being troublesome, undesirable, stupid even, and they’re not. We’re resilient, bright, smart. We’re everywhere.” – Kaitlyn Norman 

“I started at UNM with a band scholarship but I could get a larger scholarship with voice so decided to be a vocalist,” she said. “It was quite the move because I’d only ever been in choir and I didn’t know what a studio class was, what a voice class was.”

Norman found her passion in opera and wants to change the narrative that it’s only for stodgy, aristocratic music aficionados.

“I was so enamored I couldn’t stop wanting to do more. I wanted to do French, German, Italian, Russian… Opera can be so funny and so heart-wrenching, the full spectrum of human experience,” she enthused.

A show just before COVID locked everything down was “far and away one of the most formative experiences in my life. It cemented in me that this is what I wanted to do.”

Besides finding her bliss in music, Norman also flourished in the “nurturing, kind, wonderful” support she found at UNM, noting, “I think for someone with my background, trust is so guarded and so hard to give to people because of what we’ve been through.”

She credited professors Paula Corbin-Swalin, Kristin Ditlow, David Bashwiner, Olga Flora, Michael Hix, Ana Alonso Minutti, and the entire voice faculty, describing them as “people who see me as a musician and not as this tortured person… I’m really proud to hold a degree from such an esteemed faculty…  I’m so thankful to have people like them in my life.”

"Kat is one of the most brilliant undergraduate students I've had. And her story is quite inspiring. She has faced tremendous challenges due to her struggles with mental health, her time in foster care, and being a ward of the state,” said Minutti, associate professor of Musicology/Ethnomusicology. “Having met Kat as a high school student has allowed me to witness her incredible growth during her college trajectory. It's been beautiful to see that, despite facing significant challenges, Kat has persevered. Not only is Kat bright and talented, but she is also socially conscious. Students like her have the potential to do real change towards a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive music field."

Norman also gave a “tremendous, heartfelt ‘thank you’ to the College of Fine Arts for being supportive, understanding, kind and welcoming and looking at someone like me and treating me with kindness and support.”

Norman added that the Lobo Food Pantry and the Student Health and Counseling were also a big part of her success at UNM.

Following graduation, she is heading off to The University of Texas at San Antonio because of its top-notch opera program.

“I hope I can keep performing forever. I want to hone my instrument to be the best and most vibrant it can be.”

Graduating and going on for a master’s degree is a goal many people thought Norman could never achieve.

“There is a stigma surrounding foster kids and it’s a hard thing to battle, of being troublesome, undesirable, stupid even, and they’re not. We’re resilient, bright, smart. We’re everywhere.”