Embracing My Truth as a First-Gen College Student
The Florida Alternative Breaks program at the University of Florida brought students to Palm Beach County during spring break where the college students mentored students in the Take Stock in Children/Johnson Scholars Program. James Agan, a Machen Florida Opportunity Scholar, another Johnson Scholarship Foundation grantee partner program, wrote this piece for JSF about his experience.
As I wake up at 8 in the morning already stressed about the meetings I have to plan and homework I have to do, I ask myself, Why am I doing this? However, I quickly dismissed my doubts as this is my moment — my magnum opus. The summation of all my struggles and strenuous work into one singular moment. I am finally at college.
My name is James Agan but that isn’t me, I am…
• The Executive Board Member of Tau Kappa Epsilon
• The Ambassador of Chomp The Vote
• The Data Analyst at the engineering lab
I live my precarious life through my positions because it gives meaning to my daily life. If I’m not working on something, then what am I doing with my life?
When I got an invitation to the Florida Alternative Breaks (FAB) trip to go and serve the local community in South Florida, details were sparse, but nothing compared to a free opportunity to play another role, so I immediately said yes.
When we first started the trip I was initially disappointed. I envisioned painting buildings or pulling weeds and instead, I got a trip to the beach and the movies? That uneasiness set in.
But I figured it out, this was a networking opportunity! If I make connections with these people I could get more involved on campus and get more positions. So I went above and beyond on this trip making sure I left a lasting impression on these people. I made myself into the perfect mold of what I thought I should be as a FAB participant, and I crafted my plans down to the letter.
Nothing could have prepared me for that classroom.
As I walked in I felt my nerves kick in. It had been so long since I last taught a new group of students. I pushed them aside though as I was James the YMCA Camp Counselor. I had plenty of experience with these situations: the teaching skills, the speaking skills, and the personable nature.
That didn’t matter.
I directed my fellow peers to go chat with the students. It was incredible! The students were so energetic to speak to my fellow participants on the trip! But, then we switched over to my overcomplicated master plan. We had a specially designed questionnaire that tied into a panel portion. The energy plummeted instantly. I was so confused, I planned this out so thoroughly and had the necessary skills. It should have worked. Why wasn’t it working?
So we stopped doing the panel and let the students start answering the questions. They spoke of their ambition through their work effort all in an attempt to go to college. They spoke of their passion that has motivated them to be where they are today.
Through their responses I got my answer: Being First-Gen is a label, not a role. There are no operational guidelines. There are no requirements or expectations. There’s just passion and ambition. The passion to thrive and the ambition to succeed.
I could never teach them how to be successful because they all have their own unique paths they will carve for future generations to follow. I could only speak to them from our common traits: passion and ambition.
That night I had one question on my mind that I knew I needed to answer before I could continue this trip: What motivates me?
We went to another school the next day and I scrapped the whole master plan for something different — something real. We would instead start the meeting by having all of the FAB participants tell their stories to the students so we could speak to them on a personal level. We were here trying to be role models for them after all. We needed to get real with them.
Yet, I didn’t know where to begin. My story is a disconnected blob of titles. How could I tell a story from that?
Then I heard my peers talking about their personal lives. Sharing that scared me. But it was what my story was — not the make-believe roles I play for different organizations but who I was and what I stood for.
As each person spoke it got closer and closer to my turn. Every fiber of my being was telling me to turn back. Every possibility and doubt ran through my head. However, as I stood there I realized that belief is a truth mightier than any reality.
That is my story.
You see, when you come from nothing, everyone wants to call you something. That was the constant pressure as a first-generation student. So I was the kid who challenged anything and everything he could to prove he was worth something. I believed in myself when no one else would, and I believed in them too.
When I spoke to the students, I taught them that being first-generation is an advantage, not a disadvantage. There are no predetermined paths of what they should do. Only they get to decide that.
Most importantly, I reminded them that they are human beings — not human doings. I admitted my greatest flaw was trying to always prove myself and that I lived through my roles. The only thing people remember you for is who you are, not what you did.
That one reminder was meant for them and me. In the following days, I began focusing more on my story to help them find confidence as first-generation students.
Now in my daily life, I try to lead a path forward for other students like me, and I’m carving a path for future generations.