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Interpreting Medicine: Deaf Student Shadows Doctors in Italy

Johnson Scholarship Foundation provides support for Gallaudet University’s summer internship programs that enable students to study abroad. Nthabeleng MacDonald, an undergraduate at Gallaudet, wrote the following account of her summer with the Doctors in Italy Fellowship program for JSF’s Giving Matters blog. 

In May 2022, I went to Rome, Italy, for my shadowing fellowship with the Doctors in Italy Fellowship Program for two weeks. The Doctors in Italy Fellowship Program is a medical shadowing program for students interested in pursuing a career in medicine or on a path to becoming a medical doctor. The program enables students to learn about healthcare and the typical day in the life of medical professionals by shadowing English-speaking physicians across a variety of specialties, including surgery, medicine, orthopedics, cardiology, oncology pediatrics, emergency medicine, and beyond.

The shadowing aspect of the program was an incredible experience for me. It was an eye-opening experience. I believe that I was the first deaf fellow to participate in this international program. Before coming to Italy, I had a fixed mindset that I would face many communication barriers as a Deaf fellow in the program. I was prepared for that. I expected that the Italian doctors wouldn’t want to interact with me or believe in me because I am Deaf. I was also prepared for that. I decided to come to Italy anyway.  It turned out that I was wrong. The doctors there were 100% supportive and believed in me. I had the opportunity to observe and talk with so many doctors about their specialties. They walked me through every surgical procedure and patient case to make sure I understood everything that was happening in the operating room/exam room. I have so much respect for the doctors there, and I felt respected in return during my time there. My interpreters were top-notch. They worked very hard to make sure I understood everything. They even did their medical research to make sure the medical interpretation was accurate. I couldn’t have done this without them and Gallaudet University.

I was really surprised to see the way I carried myself so well and became fearless and confident in my passion for medicine throughout the program. I shadowed a variety of specialties, including vascular surgery, orthopedic surgery, general surgery, anesthesiology, ENT, biomedical engineering, etc. The patients I saw, the doctor-patient relationships, and what doctors do are some of the reasons why I want to become a doctor. I learned a lot in just two weeks!

There are not many deaf doctors in the world right now, and I want to fill that gap on top of the several important reasons for wanting to become a doctor myself. As of right now, I want to become a neuropsychiatrist, specializing in child and adolescent neurology and psychiatry.

Besides being a fellow in the program, I had the opportunity to roam around Rome in the afternoons. I ate great Italian food and tried their famous gelato! I also got to go on an excursion with the other fellows and visited the beautiful Tivoli, an hour away from Rome.

I am very excited to see where medicine takes me next as I continue my journey to becoming a doctor. I am now in my final year of undergrad. After graduation I plan to take a gap year before attending medical school. During my gap year, I hope to work as a post-baccalaureate fellow in a program within my desired fields. This is only the beginning.

Gallaudet students should travel and live abroad because it will give them a broader perspective on the world and help them step out of their comfort zone. Immerse yourself in a new culture and always keep an open mind. You never know what you will learn about yourself, your surroundings, and your passion(s) abroad! Thank you Doctors in Italy and Gallaudet University for this wonderful opportunity I will never forget!


Nthabeleng MacDonald is an undergraduate at Gallaudet University.

 

Teens With Hearing Loss Come Together for Leadership Opportunities

The Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (AG Bell) welcomed another 40 teens with hearing loss to its 26th annual Leadership Opportunities for Teens (LOFT) program this summer. Youth Program Counselors all graduated from the LOFT program and pay it forward by guiding the experience for the teens who follow them.

AG Bell was gratified to renew its in-person LOFT program which had been offered virtually for two years. Forty teens traveled to Washington D.C. to the campus of Georgetown University, just two blocks from AG Bell’s headquarters at the historic Volta Bureau. Youth programs are vital to helping teens discover they are not alone in their challenges, as many teens report never having met another person with hearing loss before participating in LOFT. Through this program, they discover “someone just like me” who understands their hearing loss and can share experiences and successes that help build support and self-confidence.

Teens participated in various activities that promote team building, leadership, and self-advocacy including an improv session led by DC Improv. Teens connected with speakers including I. King Jordan, Disability Programs Consultant for the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, and John Stanton, AG Bell Board Member and a U.S. attorney with the Department of Justice who helped facilitate the admission of a group of deaf and hard of hearing attorneys into the Supreme Court of the United States. Teens spent time at the Volta Bureau, constructed by Alexander Graham Bell in 1893, and had the opportunity to see national monuments and visit the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Activities like these add to the teens’ shared experiences and challenge them to navigate and advocate in small groups.

Through anonymous post-surveys, teens who attended LOFT provided testimonials of their experiences in the program. Here are a few of their testimonials:

“The most significant thing I learned from LOFT is what it really means to have a true community to share knowledge and wisdom and topics outside of our hearing loss and to feel seen with other people with hearing loss.”

“I’ve learned that there are many different ways to be a leader. Advocating for myself leads to many different opportunities.”

“LOFT was the most empowering program I’ve been a part of, especially in relation to my hearing loss. Meeting others like me obviously made me feel less isolated, but it also made me more confident. I’m lucky I’m still in touch with the people from my LOFT session since we’re able to talk to each other about struggles most other people wouldn’t understand. I am eternally grateful to have been offered a spot in this program.”

LOFT programming would not be possible without the generosity of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation and other sponsors. For more information and to apply to attend LOFT, please visit AGBellLOFT.com or email LOFT@agbell.org.


Farrah Matlock is Youth Programs Coordinator at AG Bell.

Grant Makes International Experiences Possible for Students with Disabilities

Mount Allison University is a liberal arts school in rural Atlantic Canada that is consistently ranked as offering our country’s best undergraduate education. What I’m most proud of is that the University has a long tradition of supporting students with disabilities and a strong commitment to innovating how education can be more accessible. I work in this area everyday as the Director of Accessibility and Student Wellness. As a part of this role, I manage the Meighen Centre, which is the University’s centre for supporting students with disabilities.

This year, Mount Allison launched a brand-new international opportunity. Fifteen students and two staff travelled to Utrecht, Netherlands, for a  a two-week, for-credit field school led by the Department of Psychology. Of the 15 students, 10 identified as having a disability. Thanks to the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, I was able to travel with this group to support their individual learning and accessibility needs, ensuring students from a traditionally disadvantaged group had access to this unique educational opportunity and were able to fully participate.

After the experience, I asked students their reflections about the trip. One of the most notable responses from a participant was that they thought it was important for others to know that at Mount Allison students with accessibility needs can and will be accommodated even when taking our classrooms abroad. This is something I am so proud our University is committed to doing.

For many of the participating students, it was their first time travelling abroad. One of those students was Nathan McIver, who shared that the entire trip — from the application process and travel itself to the connections he made and continues to stay in touch with — was an experience that built his confidence and was life changing.

“It shaped me as a person,” says Nathan. “I’m so grateful for the whole opportunity and the people I met. I just hope more students get an opportunity like this.” Nathan shared that among his favourite experiences were a kayak trip through the canals of Utrecht, visiting restaurants and cafes owned by local farmers, and making excursions to other nearby cities and countries. A member of Nathan’s family had also perished on a battlefield in the Netherlands during the Second World War, and he had the opportunity to visit the site.

Nathan expressed appreciation for the help with notetaking when attending large classes at Utrecht University and shared that the faculty leading the trip and classes were very open and allowed students new to international travel and study to ask questions whenever they were unsure.

Funding from donors and government make this and similar field schools possible. Other upcoming field schools include a Religious Studies course in Kyoto, Japan, and a Biology Course on the Galapagos Islands. Our Department of Psychology will also be offering another field school in the Netherlands next year. Thanks to the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, Meighen Centre support staff will be able to accompany students and provide accessibility supports. We are deeply appreciative to the Foundation for helping our students achieve their educational and personal goals, plan brighter futures, and make a difference in the world.


Matt Maston is the Director of Accessibility and Student Wellness at Mount Allison University.

 

Representation on the Big Screen: Deaf Actors Portray Deaf Characters

This is a story about representation. It’s a story about normalizing and equity and inclusion and how all those elements can come together on the big screen in a feel-good story featuring kids who happen to be deaf.

The movie is “Rally Caps,” a coming-of-age story set on a backdrop of a Little League Baseball diamond. It features children who are deaf playing the parts of the characters who are deaf. Both characters use hearing technology to access sound, just like students attending Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech (Clarke), a grantee partner of JSF.

Caroline Oberweger, Director of  Foundation Relations at Clarke, and a cochlear implant user, got an up-close view of the film. Caroline, her husband Alex, and their children, Natalie and Sam, were all extras in the movie. She shares her experience below. The article below was shared with permission from Clarke.

How did you become extras on the set of Rally Caps?
Rally Caps was filmed at my children’s sleepaway camp. When I read that the film was about a young boy who is deaf and uses a cochlear implant, I immediately jumped at the chance to be a part of this story, even if just in a small way.

What is your hearing loss diagnosis and what technology do you use to access sound?
I was diagnosed with a moderate-severe sensorineural hearing loss at the age of 10. I wore hearing aids for three decades until my hearing loss progressed to profound in my late thirties. I got my first cochlear implant 10 years ago at age 38, and the second two years later.

As a person with hearing loss using listening and spoken language (LSL), do you feel represented in the media?
I have been seeing an increasing number of stories about hearing aids and cochlear implants (CIs) in the news the past few years, and that’s terrific. But as a CI user, I’ve yet to see myself represented in film and television. I’m really thrilled that Rally Caps will be showcasing a character who hears and speaks with the help of a cochlear implant. I think there is still an assumption among the public at large that people who are deaf communicate solely through American Sign Language. Rally Caps counters that perception.

What are you most looking forward to about seeing this film?
I’m proud that the film centers around a boy who is deaf and uses a cochlear implant, as I’ve never seen an actor, or character, with a CI on film. I’ve read the book that the movie is based on and found it very touching; the theme of overcoming obstacles and embracing being different is one that resonates with me very personally. Of course, seeing my children on film — at their very own summer camp, no less! — will be thrilling as well.

Read more about Rally Caps in Clarke Speaks Up.


Caroline Oberweger is Director of Foundation Relations at Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech.

 

 

JSF Grant Supports Alaska Native STEM Students

Dedicated to fostering academic opportunity and excellence for students across Alaska, the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program (ANSEP) is reshaping education for students in kindergarten all the way through to the Ph.D level. A grant partnership between ANSEP and the Johnson Scholarship Foundation will support these academic opportunities over the next three years through the Acceleration Academy, Summer Bridge, and University Success components.

Serving as an exemplary education model for students across the nation, the Acceleration Academy is improving the lives of high school students and their families by providing access to quality education, reducing costs for families and government, and eliminating chronic remediation. The Johnson Scholarship Foundation grant supports 20 students each year in this component, allowing them to graduate from high school with over 100 college credits that count towards BS degree programs and go from eighth grade to a BS degree in just five years.

Not only do the ANSEP Acceleration Academy students have an 80% completion rate of university courses, they are also among the top students in the nation and 95% advance one level or more in math or science each semester.

ANSEP’s Summer Bridge opportunity gives high school graduates the opportunity to gain first-hand experience as a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) or business field professional through a paid summer internship. The Johnson Scholarship Foundation is supporting 10 students each year, which will prepare the students academically, professionally and socially for college and careers. This summer, 20 students – most of whom have been involved with ANSEP precollege components for years – are participating in internships available across Alaska. These recent high school graduates are getting experience doing everything from studying walrus habitats and behaviors to researching permafrost and biodiversity in the field.

The ANSEP University Success component supports college students by providing them with a community on campus, small-group study sessions, professional mentorship, research projects, internships, housing, scholarships and student activities. Over 75% of ANSEP University students who have participated have graduated or are currently enrolled and go on to work in leadership positions in Alaska’s workforce. The Johnson Scholarship Foundation grant provides college students with the community and resources they need to not only succeed academically and socially, but to also freely and comfortably embrace their heritage in the presence of like-minded individuals.

Katherine Sakeagak

JSF Scholarship recipient Katherine Sakeagak (Inupiaq) was familiar with ANSEP before ever joining the program. Her father was one of the very first ANSEP students. Sakeagak has participated in several components, including Acceleration Academy and now University Success. She first became involved with ANSEP seven years ago through the Middle School Academy and now she will be graduating in the fall of 2023 from University of Alaska Anchorage with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and Mathematics.

For Sakeagak, ANSEP has helped in a multitude of ways including making connections with peers and professionals.

“Taking college courses in high school helped me be able to connect with peers in my classes at UAA,” said Sakeagak. “I was a pretty shy person, but with all of the opportunities ANSEP has provided me, like our weekly team-building meetings with STEM professionals, faculty, staff and other students in attendance, it’s been really helpful for me to get out of my shell and make connections.”

With the support of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, ANSEP and the work it does to power systemic change for Alaska Natives will continue to expand and provide students across the state with access to a quality education. This three-year, $450,000 grant will give students the opportunity to attend ANSEP’s award-winning Acceleration Academy, Summer Bridge, and University Success components and have access to academic support, internships and research opportunities that deliver intensive training for university academics and industry involvement.

To learn more about the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program, visit www.ANSEP.net.


Allison Heaslet is Social Media and Marketing Director for the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program at the University of Alaska.

Mobilized to Act: The Power of Young Adult Leaders to Bring About Change

Eye to Eye is national organization whose mission is to improve the educational experience and outcomes of every student who learns differently, including those with specific learning disabilities (LD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or other similar challenges related to learning. Eye to Eye is a grantee partner of Johnson Scholarship Foundation. 

Youth voice has always been at the center of everything we do at Eye to Eye. It’s core to our values, the partnerships we make, and the programs we lead. We have a fundamental belief that not only young people but those who have lived experience are the ones who should be guiding our organization and the movement of neurodiverse individuals. That philosophy was never more alive and well than a few weeks ago in Washington DC.

In mid-June, 50 young people from around the United States came together to continue a long history of advocacy toward a more equitable and just society. Young leaders from the National Center for Learning Disabilities Young Adult Leadership Council and young leaders of Eye to Eye Mentoring and Learn Different Alliance (LD Alliance) programs gathered in community to plan, discuss, and prepare for a series of meetings and events. Over two days – June 14-15, 2022, these young leaders met with Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, hosted 56 different Congressional meetings, and met with the White House Disability Liaison. They asked difficult questions and told their stories with passion and data. They represented their community with pride and knowledge. They lived up to the phrase given to us by the disability activists of the past “nothing about us without us.”

Their ask of members of Congress was to support the bi-partisan RISE Act. The RISE Act is a crucial piece of legislation that would greatly improve the lives of students with disabilities all over the country.  Namely, it would do three key things:

  1. It would require that colleges accept a student’s IEP, 504 plan, or prior evaluation as sufficient proof of their disability when seeking accommodations.
  2. It authorizes more funding for a technical assistance center, the National Center for College Students with Disabilities (NCCSD), that provides students and families with information about available disability services and offers faculty training and resources on best practices to support students with disabilities.
  3. It requires colleges to report on how many students with disabilities are being served, the accommodations provided, and the outcomes of these students.

Caden, an engineering student with LD/ADHD, met with his Senator’s office (Mitch McConnell) and shared his experience attending public middle and high schools in Kentucky. He pointed out how the in access and inequity he experienced could have been eliminated with the passage and full funding of the provisions of the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and the RISE Act.

As he shared his experience, he said: “I wasn’t just there to share my LD/ADHD story in overcoming barriers to access education. I was there on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of LD/ADHD students across the country who have stories that are still being written.” In a similar way, another student shared that they “feel the need to help people like me that don’t feel they have a voice.”

Another student shared that her two main takeaways from the event were that individuals are much closer to initiating sizable political change than what is typically perceived and that a community of unique individuals that live similar daily experiences can come from anywhere. The collection of those voices creates a force that is very hard to ignore.

The powerful impact of LD Day of Action showed up in our students’ willingness to see their own power and strength in what they were doing, and their ability to advocate not only for themselves but on behalf of others. At Eye to Eye, we remain committed to providing these types of opportunities and resources for young people to enact change.


Marcus Soutra is Co-Founder and President of Eye to Eye

Introducing Native Forward Scholars Fund

Johnson Scholarship Foundation is proud to share the rebranding of its grantee partner, Native Forward Scholars Fund, formerly known as the American Indian Graduate Center. JSF partners with Native Forward to provide academic scholarships for students majoring in accounting or finance as well as exam fee scholarships for individuals pursuing professional licensure. The collaboration is also helping Native Forward establish a scholarship endowment.

This is what Native Forward has to say about how the new name was chosen:

Since the origin of our organization over 50 years ago, our work has supported the forward movement of Native communities — giving rise to new beginnings, advancing new opportunities, and establishing new horizons for our scholars.

We are committed to our goal of empowering Native leaders through national scholarship funding and student services to share their voices and strengthen their communities.

Today, we would like to reintroduce ourselves as Native Forward Scholars Fund. While there is no perfect single name to describe all members of our communities, “Native” speaks clearly to our collective history and cultures. “Forward” directly speaks towards the empowerment of our scholars’ success to create and enact positive change.

We are grateful for 50 years in community with you and look forward to the next 50 – join us at: nativeforward.org!


Reflections of a Recent First-Gen College Grad

I recently said in a graduation speech, “transitions are hard, especially when navigating terrain no one before you had the tools to map out.” This one sentence encapsulates my entire first-gen experience. Growing up, I was taught to see value in my education, to view it as an opportunity to be better than my circumstances—an “out.” For a long time, I did not have the language to describe myself as first-gen. All I knew was that my mom never went to college, and while I understood how this fact impacted my everyday life, it didn’t mean much to me outside of that. I wasn’t introduced to the world of first-gen until my first year of high school after being approached by a guidance counselor attempting to recruit me into our Johnson Scholarship Program (now Take Stock in Children/Johnson Scholars Program). So this is a full-circle moment for me. That chance encounter changed my life, and I am beyond grateful for it.

When it finally became time for me to apply to college, I suddenly realized how little I knew about the process. Everything I “lacked” was put on display, and I found myself having to be vulnerable in ways I didn’t expect, and at times it was discouraging and overwhelming. Fortunately, I had a program like Take Stock providing me with resources and guidance during the application process. In the end, I only applied to four colleges, the University of Florida being one of them. UF was my first choice. I had never visited, but I knew that it was the place for me, and clearly, UF felt the same because I was accepted and soon after received a full-ride scholarship (thanks, MFOS!).

Although I was excited about this new opportunity, my transition into college was far from easy. I remember constantly telling myself to “embrace change.” That was easier said than done. By the end of my first semester of college, I had changed my major from zoology to English and had already dropped two classes. For a while, I felt like I had given up on myself, on my childhood dream. I labeled myself a quitter whose “failures” were a genuine reflection of my capabilities. Obviously, this wasn’t true, but the unfamiliarity of my environment was getting to me, and I fell into the trap of only seeing myself as a diversity quota. It’s easy when not many people look like you.

I had forgotten about my accomplishments despite my adversity. I had forgotten about my perseverance and strength. My experiences with imposter syndrome, anxiety, and fear were fueled by systems I continue to fight against, and the harsh labels society puts on you when you grow up living and looking like me. When you are “othered,” you hear many things about yourself; you are called many names, stereotyped, and forced into boxes, so you are easier to digest—all attempts to make you feel unworthy and not good enough. However, my mother has always told me that I do not have to answer to the names other people call me because I define who I am. Not my circumstances, not other peoples’ projections, me. This sentiment helped me remind myself that I can do anything I set my mind to.

I often wonder if 18-year-old Yasmine would be proud of who she has become because I had a lot of dreams that did not come to fruition. However, standing on the opposite end of four very long years, I could not be happier and more sure of myself. During my time in college, I have had the opportunity to mentor first-generation college students, give tours to prospective students and their families, write for UF’s first Black student-run magazine, pick up minors in anthropology and African American studies, conduct and present research, start a podcast, make life-long friends, and more importantly, learn the importance of living and being present for the things that matter to me.

Yet, none of this would be possible without my support system. I would not be the woman I am today without the people who have sacrificed for me, mentored me, poured into me, encouraged me, showed me compassion and love, and have seen me before I could even see myself. They are my reminders that the space I take up matters, that the things I do for others matter. I stand on the shoulders of giants, and I am proud to be a reflection of them. They have made the biggest difference in this journey.


Yasmine Adams, a Machen Florida Opportunities Scholar, is a recent graduate of the University of Florida.

Nothing is Ever Truly Out of Reach

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. Amy Albandoz, a Machen Florida Opportunity Scholar, another Johnson Scholarship Foundation grantee partner program, wrote this piece for JSF about her experience. 

When I was young, I was surrounded by the phrase “Follow your dreams.” It was everywhere in my childhood. We were encouraged to pursue our passions from day one, were told that the only thing limiting us was ourselves, and that “The sky’s the limit!” But for some reason I never truly felt included in these celebrations. I felt like I did have limitations, that I could not be who I wanted to be, all because of where I came from.

I came from a single immigrant mother who had two kids and was doing her best to make ends meet. My brother was older than me and was helping make sure that we were taken care of, but when he passed everything changed. At the age of 13, I was thrust into a position I felt like I could not handle. I had to make sure my mom was okay, that she was not overworking herself, all the while making sure that I was doing well in school so that I could get a good job when I graduated and take over.

Dreaming was not really an option for me. Of course, there was a part of me that wished, but reality always won.

However, my bleak outlook changed when I heard about Take Stock in Children. All of a sudden, the wishing became a part of reality – my dreams were no longer fantasy but were within reach. I became surrounded by people who were like me, others who felt excluded from being able to follow their dreams. Take Stock in Children offered me a life safety rope, and I took it.

Take Stock in Children is so much more than just a scholarship. It is a resource and a community of people who do not just tell you that you can achieve anything, but actually show you that you can, and will help you get there. My college success coach and mentor were instrumental in helping me apply for college, and they did not let me stop there. They encouraged me to push further, and keep applying for scholarships, one of which was Leaders for Life. Before becoming a part of the Take Stock family, I would never have thought of applying for it, much less actually doing so. That type of scholarship was simply not for people like me. However, Take Stock showed me that I could dream that big and that I should take a leap of faith.

That leap of faith is what landed me here, as a volunteer in Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars’ Florida Alternative Breaks trip. That leap of faith is what took me back to settings that remind me of home, surrounded by people who remind myself of me. I chose to volunteer because it represented an opportunity to give a portion of myself back to the community that raised me. It was a chance to inspire someone in a way that I wished I had been inspired as a young adult. It took me a while to realize exactly how far I could go, and if I could help even one person realize this now, then I would be happy.

Our group of volunteers worked closely with the Johnson Scholarship Foundation and the Take Stock in Children of Palm Beach County to visit schools and work directly with students. Our goal was to help them realize their potential and answer any questions they might have had. We shared our stories and connected with everyone through a series of games that got us moving and enjoying ourselves. We were able to engage with students, while also making sure that they are aware of exactly how far they can go with the support of the TSIC/Johnson Scholars programs.

We also provided some great tidbits of advice: Make use of the resources that are offered to you. Understand exactly what something entails and take full advantage of the opportunities. These resources are here specifically for you, to help you get to where you want to be. Make sure to utilize them.

Also, find a mentor. A mentor can help you in so many ways from navigating something new, to finding jobs, and learning about new interests. You can find a mentor in anyone and having a safety net is extremely helpful. But also know that forming this type of bond takes time and dedication. Putting yourself out there is a start, but make sure to take an interest in what your mentor is doing as well. Everyone needs encouragement. In the same way that I volunteered to help students I also volunteered to help myself. You are as much of a mentor as you are a mentee.

But inspiring and helping others is not the only reason I decided to volunteer. I also wanted to learn from the students we were working with. Each of these groups was filled with individuals with similar stories to mine, and I wanted to hear about what kept them going, and about what they dreamed to achieve. I learned something from every group we worked with. I learned about compassion, dedication, ambition, and about growth. Even though the time we shared with the students was short, I felt inspired by every personality there. I am very glad to have had the chance to connect with everyone, and I am excited to see what the future will bring for them.

My biggest takeaway from the trip is that while it may feel like something is not meant for you, nothing is ever truly out of reach. If you apply yourself, look for the opportunities, and give it your all, you could very well end up in the place you were dreaming about. All it takes is a leap of faith and a dream.


Amy Albandoz is a University of Florida Machen Florida Opportunity Scholar.

 

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.


A student posing in front of a mural.

James Agan is a University of Florida Machen Florida Opportunity Scholar.