Neasha Prince, a recent graduate of Florida Atlantic University, was a first-generation scholar who founded FAU’s First and Proud Organization in partnership with FAU’s Office of First Generation Student Success, a grantee partner of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation. We talked with Neasha, now a first-year law student at St. Thomas University College of Law, about the First and Proud Organization and the Office of First Generation Student Success and how both were instrumental in shaping her college experience.
AF: Tell me how First and Proud came about.
NP: I went to FAU in the Fall of 2017. I was able to go to FAU because of the Kelly/Strul Emerging Scholars program. I was one of the first four to receive it. I said to myself, there’s definitely more than four first-generation students that need assistance. I had a friend I knew who was first-generation but she wasn’t a Kelly/Strul scholar. By the spring of my first year, we were having conversations about First and Proud. It began in early 2019.
I spoke to Ron Oliver, (then-Director of the FAU First Generation Student Success Office) about this idea, and he said, ‘Just go for it.’ Next thing, I’m meeting with other first-gen students to be a part of the board. And within the first semester, we had about 1,000 members.
AF: What were some of the activities you put in place?
NP: The best thing we put in place was really just talking to our members. Every person has a different first-gen story. You might be first-gen but not first in your family or you might be first-gen from another country. With first-gen students, there’s no guidance at home. We never had a family member to help us go through what we’re going through. At school, you figure at least I’ll get some guidance.
We had a lot of events, a lot of panels talking to our students. Also, we worked a lot to go back to our members to find out what they needed the most – how can we help you on a professional scale. Once we were able to establish some lists of needs, we worked to see if the university could match that for us. A lot of our first-gen students don’t have the ability to network, so we created a workshop where we had a lot of well-connected people who spoke to our members. And these were people that were also first-gen. Some were from FAU, but we also made connections that our director had at the time, so it exposed our members to these opportunities for networking. First and Proud is not like any other clubs at school. You’re actually partnering up with the University for an array of career opportunities for students. We’re giving them the opportunity to change the trajectory of their careers.
AF: Did First and Proud Change the trajectory of your career?
NP: Very much so because of all the connections I made through it. During undergrad, I had two internships, one in social media marketing at BBC International in Boca Raton. Also through connections I made at the university I was able to gain an internship with Kellogg’s Information Technology Department in their Division of Project Management. My scholarship was able to cover my housing and lodging costs for going out of state for the internship as well. It was a wonderful experience. I got to meet a lot of interns from across the world. We had an opportunity to build an app for our client, the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago. That really broadened my perspective and made me think of larger ways to accomplish my goal of helping my community.
AF: What advice do you give other first-gen students?
NP: The advice I would give, first and foremost is to not be afraid to put yourself out there. We can get very scared to put yourself out there and miss out on opportunities. The best advice I can give is, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and just be a sponge, soaking up as much as possible. I always said ‘Yes’ to opportunities. The only time I ever said ‘No’ was if something was going to conflict with a commitment I already had made. You never know when an opportunity can lead to another opportunity.
AF: The resume you’ve developed in just a short time seems like a testament to that.
NP: That’s true. After I graduated, I paired up with AmeriCorps and had an assignment in Connecticut at the Great Oaks Charter School as a STEM tutor for eighth graders. After that I moved back home and I had landed a job as a social worker for an after-care program at the Firewall Centers in Fort Lauderdale. My job was making sure every home of the kids in the program had the resources the kids needed.
AF: How did you decide to go to law school?
NP: During my final year at FAU, I was approached with the opportunity to go to Israel. It was the Maccabee Task Force Black Student Leaders Trip. During the trip, I met a lot of Black students who had gone to HBCU schools. When I went, I was at a crossroads as far as what I wanted to do. I was surrounded by a lot of individuals who were profound in who they were and where they were going. All I knew was that I wanted to help my community and be a voice for my community. I just didn’t know what that looked like. The trip taught me what it really means to make effective change in impoverished communities. Being a lawyer was the only career avenue that I felt could accomplish that for me for the rest of my life.
When I came back home that December, I spoke with my mentor and said, ‘Change of plans. Let’s figure out how to do this.’ So while I was in Connecticut I was working on my LSAT and my admission applications. That’s when I got admitted and accepted.
AF: You mentioned your mentor. Tell me more about the role of mentors for first-gen students.
NP: Well mentors are key. For myself, I wanted to be sure I was being guided by the right person. My mentors were absolutely inspirational from the fact that they understood who I was as a person, who I was growing to become. They understood that sometimes I get stuck in my head, wrestling with who I wanted to become. My senior year I had an amazing mentor. She was very relaxed but also nurturing. At First and Proud, we encourage mentors. We were in the process of developing a mentoring plan so our members understood how important a mentor is. We wanted to create a mentoring initiative. Mentors truly do make a difference in how we view our lives. You connect with that mentor on a different level – on a professional level.
AF: Anything else you want to add about First and Proud?
NP: Toward the end of my senior year – the pandemic year, I was approached with the idea of creating a foundation in association with the First and Proud organization. So we launched the First and Proud Foundation in May of 2020. It’s a sister organization with a mission to raise funds for first-gen students. Oftentimes the first response you hear when trying to help first-gen students is the need for money. So that’s the goal. It’s my personal baby that I’m working on. We have launched, and we have been raising funds. Now it’s just a matter of figuring out how to allocate those dollars. Our focus with the foundation is trying to create a pipeline where we find as many first-gen students as we can and recruit them to FAU, but even if they don’t choose FAU, we want to provide them with a whole lot of resources prior to their entrance to college.