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First-Generation College Grad Helps University of Florida Students Reach for Success

Growing up, Cherrelle “Elle” Collins dreamed of going to college like she saw on TV. She also wanted a career that would help people. Now as a first-generation college graduate, she’s living out her dream—empowering historically low-income, first-gen students at the University of Florida to reach for success like she did.

As director of the nationally recognized Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars (MFOS) Program—which JSF helps support through a matching grant—Collins works hard to ensure each student receives individualized attention and mentoring as they experience college life.

But without her own mentors guiding her along the way, she may not have pursued helping others through access work. 

Collins shares that her childhood was a mix of challenges and aspirations.

“College wasn’t something we talked about around the dinner table or dreamed about at a young age,” she explains. “I always felt inspiration from people who look like me on TV—series like The Cosby Show and how those people navigated college with success. That sparked this idea of college, and it took root in my mind as a possibility.” 

Thankfully, Collins had an army of mentors and educators supporting her during her elementary and teenage years. 

“I think about my fifth-grade English teacher and my cheer and dance coaches, who told me they saw potential in me,” she says.

As high school graduation neared, Collins and her mother began having serious conversations about her future. 

That got Collins thinking: Who did she want to be? She knew she wanted to go to college, but believed her educational outcomes needed to outweigh the cost of tuition. So, Collins focused on surgical technology, beginning her higher education journey at Niagara County Community College, outside of Buffalo, New York. In 2012, she received her associate’s degree before attending the State University of New York at Buffalo (UB) as a nursing major.

But along the way, conversations with UB administrators and professors stirred something more in Collins.

“They helped me see my potential,” she recalls. “I thought there was only one way out—I had to [study] medicine or engineering to save my family from poverty. I recognized through those mentors that I could lean into what I was passionate about. And I wanted to be in a helping profession.”

Elle Collins at University of Florida. Photo courtesy of UF Student Life, by Matt August.

These fruitful discussions helped Collins realize she could help students with stories similar to hers. So, she switched her major to health and human services and graduated in 2014. She then pursued a master’s degree in higher education administration at UB. 

During that time, she also served as assistant director for college success initiatives at Say Yes Buffalo, which helps remove educational and employment barriers for students in area public and charter schools. While there, she helped open college success centers in over 20 high schools. 

It was the start of her dream career.

Sadly, something tragic happened in her first year of grad school. Collins lost her mother. 

“Everything reminded me of what I was going through,” she shares. “My mom, who was a woman of faith, always instilled this idea that you can run from something or you can run to something. You can sit in the pain and the grief—or use it to fuel your next thing.” 

Collins took that advice to heart, determined to start a new chapter. She began job searching in the spring of 2016, just before graduation.

“I didn’t see myself in New York anymore—I thought being home would help me get through grief, but I realized I needed to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” she says. “I widened my search and started to look for other places that could give me something different.”

Collins searched with a specific idea in mind: the chance to work at a big university. 

“I wanted the sports, the bands, Greek life—those things my smaller schools up north didn’t have,” she explains. “As I went through the interview process at the University of Florida, [it felt] conversational. I could be myself. As I walked around, it gave me the feeling of what I saw growing up—what I thought college was like.”

In the fall of 2016, she moved from New York to Gainesville after accepting a housing and residence life position at UF. Less than nine months into her position, she was promoted from resident director to area coordinator. 

However, it didn’t take long before Collins told her supervisor that she was interested in transitioning into access and community work at the university. She was introduced to Dr. Leslie Pendleton, the senior director of the MFOS Program at the time. Collins says the program, a full financial need scholarship that assists historically low-income first-generation college students pursue education at UF, reminded her of a first-generation scholarship she received while at UB.

“I was encouraged to collaborate with and learn from her,” says Collins, who joined the MFOS team as director in 2022.

She says her work with Say Yes Buffalo and UF housing uniquely prepared her for her current role.

“They allowed me to hone in on leadership, communications skills, problem-solving, and strategic thinking,” she shares. “I understood not every Gator had the same experience, and we need to take an individualized approach. Housing is crisis management, it’s 24/7! I lived where I worked—so there was a deeper understanding of student needs.”

She describes her MFOS role as dynamic and fulfilling, especially when meeting with students, staff, and faculty or collaborating on new initiatives that enhance students’ experiences.

“Not every program will fit the needs of every student, so I want us to think deeply about enhancing that experience. What do first-year students need? They need help with transitions, [knowing] how to study the curriculum as a college student, and building community. Second-year students need help with their major declaration and doing more through leadership or service on campus. And the third- and fourth-year students are [navigating] that transition out.”

Each year, the MFOS Program serves over 1,600 individuals. The network is composed of about 6,000 students, including alumni and current students.

She believes the program is successful because of the approach to tailored support and a team of people with unwavering dedication to student success.

For Collins, working in the department is also a full-circle moment. 

“It’s an honor to give back and speak to the little version of myself,” she explains. “I see myself represented in many of the students’ stories, so giving back to a program that has played a similar role [in my life] is unexplainable.”

Her advice to Machen scholars? Believe in yourself, never underestimate the power of your dreams, and own your story. 

“I remember a time when I wasn’t always proud of [my story],” she says. “I believe that for many students who identify as first-generation or limited income, there can be a lot of shame associated with their journeys. Shame about leaving home, shame about not knowing all the answers, shame about upbringing. I believe there is power in owning our stories and sharing them more broadly to impact and change the trajectories of communities, systems, and structures.”

Breaking Barriers: Reflections from a First-Gen College Graduate

Johnson Scholar and University of Florida grad Jaciah Rashid shares this introspective on her college journey, the road to get there, and what it means to be a first-gen college student

This article was written by Johnson Scholar and University of Florida graduate Jaciah Rashid. It is shared here with permission.

Ever since I was a child, I dreamed of changing the world. I quickly realized that obtaining a higher education was the key to unlocking my dreams, so I set my sights on college with only a vague understanding of what a difficult undertaking it would be. There was only one major obstacle standing before me: finances.

I knew that the only way I would be able to afford a higher education was through scholarships. Thus, when high school commenced, I began on a horse race to try and acquire the funds necessary to finance my education. After many sleepless nights studying the night away, I was finally able to get the scholarships I needed to go to college, among which included Take Stock in Children/Johnson Scholars (TSIC/JS) and Machen Florida Opportunity Scholarship (MFOS). I also graduated as valedictorian of my high school as collateral. 

Soon after came the treacherous journey of traversing college as a first-generation college student. As soon as I stepped foot on campus, I was bombarded with collegiate buzzwords that I had never heard of, including “fraternities,” “certificates,” “tracks,” and more. At orientation, I asked the presenter if it was bad not to be “pre-med” in hopes of figuring out what this oft-heard term meant, to which I received blank stares from no less than one hundred of my peers in the room.

I could not afford the fee to bring my parents along with me. I was alone and so utterly confused. However, from then on, step by step, day by day, I conquered the uphill battle of making sense of the otherwise untrekked territory that was college. I learned about research, double majors, graduating with honors, and more. Now, here I stand at the end of my journey, on top of the mountain that is college, looking back at my journey and the trials and tribulations that I triumphed. 

I am honored to be a first-generation success story, adding my tale to a garment weaved by an ever-growing community of strong individuals who beat the odds. Within my undergraduate studies, I created a computational brain cancer model to bolster the success rate of therapies undergoing clinical trials, and I published my paper with the National Institute of Health. I was able to touch lives through a variety of volunteer work, serving as a teacher, a mentor, and a conversation partner to underprivileged elementary school students, incoming freshmen, and international students struggling to adapt to American culture respectively.

I also blossomed from a meek, anxious 18-year-old into a confident, independent young adult with a deep understanding of who I am and what I stand for. All of my experiences culminated into a successful graduation: this past May, I graduated from the University of Florida’s Honors Program with a B.S. in Biochemistry and a B.S. in Computer Science. I also graduated from the University Research Scholars Program (URSP), an opportunity offered only to the top 5% of students. I now work as a full-time software engineer in the defense industry and hope to continue my education as a part-time graduate student in the near future.

I could not have completed this journey on my own. I am forever grateful for the friends, family members, and mentors that served as an emotional crutch for me throughout the ups and downs of college. I am also indebted to scholarship organizations like TSIC/JS and MFOS that enabled me to embark on this journey to begin with. Without the support of others, I would not have been able to succeed in college.

Still, it is difficult to process how far I have come. I can recall a childhood of hiding behind the family couch, eating spoonfuls of sugar to stave off the hunger that came with chronic food insecurity at home. Now, with a newfound sense of financial stability, I have the power to provide for myself as well as those in need. As I gain my foothold at my new job, I hope to enable another dreamer, just like me, to see their aspirations come to fruition.

Before I ever realized, I find myself at a checkpoint in life. The launch of my engineering career marks my departure from the world of helplessness that marked my childhood toward a glowing future I can look forward to, and I have never been so content. As I ponder the past, I remember a little girl who cared deeply and dreamed big, and although I can never know for sure, it brings me great joy to envision that a younger me would have been proud to know what she will grow up to be.

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.

An Interview with Neasha Prince, Founder of FAU’s First and Proud Organization

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.

Neasha Prince with a First and Proud Club panel.

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.


Angie Francalancia is a communications specialist with Johnson Scholarship Foundation

 

 

Behind JSF’s Mandate of Service: The Individuals Who Serve

She was too choked up to talk. I couldn’t see her face because I was sitting behind her on the stage. I really wasn’t sure if she would stand at the podium in silence, fighting to catch her breath or ramble for ten minutes. Either way it wouldn’t matter. She had the undivided attention of everyone. It was not for the promise of an inspiring message, nor the VIP status bestowed on her at the event. Neither the highest-ranking public official nor the gifted keynote speaker would come close to garnering the focus of the students in the audience as she would. She commanded the grateful reverence of those in attendance because of the genuine relationships she had built with them over the years, and you could see it on their faces.

a woman standing at a lectern with a man in the background behind her

Wanda Kirby, who is retiring from the Palm Beach County School District, receives a hand with lowering her microphone from colleague Gbolade George during the Johnson Scholars/Take Stock in Children graduation ceremony earlier this month in suburban West Palm Beach, Florida. Photos by Coastal Click Photography.

Wanda Kirby had served these disadvantaged high school students through the Palm Beach County School District’s Johnson Scholars/Take Stock in Children Program, and many of them had reached this graduation milestone because of her work. Tonight, she was retiring.

Foundation work can sometimes feel removed from the people we serve. The stewardship of our organization through committee service, letters of inquiry, applications and reports does not directly connect us to the individuals we serve … but the Wandas do.

It’s a common denominator we find in many of our grantee partners – individuals whose personal investment is almost immeasurable, except in terms of graduations, college acceptances, job offers, and personal growth of the young people they’ve assisted.

I think of Dr. Leslie Pendleton, who leads University of Florida’s first-generation student success program. She knew that first-generation students needed guidance not for their academics but for life outside the classroom.

Paul J. Adams III, executive chairman and founder of Providence St. Mel School, says “It’s not rocket science” about the success of the 42-year-old school on Chicago’s west side. Maybe not rocket science, but an undying commitment to high expectations, accountability, strong curriculum and good instruction.

J. Curtis Warner, Jr., was the founder and architect of the Berklee College of Music City Music Program. The program brings inner-city middle and high school students from Boston to Berklee for a collegiate experience and mentoring. The program is now being replicated around the country.

Our partnerships with grantees link us to the people we serve. Our work is most effective and fulfilling when we view it through the lens of that service to people.

The work of Wanda Kirby, Leslie Pendleton, Paul J. Adams III, J. Curtis Warner, Jr. and so many others reflects JSF’s mandate of serving disadvantaged people at its best. In the JSF family, we have all had the experience of seeing first-hand the fruit of that service.


Bobby Krause is CEO of Johnson Scholarship Foundation.

Valedictorian: Grateful for the Experience of Having Failed

Hana Ali is a Johnson Take Stock Program participant graduating this spring as Valedictorian of Lake Worth Community High School. On her way to attending the University of Florida, she’s picked up numerous scholarships, including awards from the Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties, the Women’s Chamber of Commerce, Teamwork USA, and the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars. She wrote this personal statement as part of the Johnson Take Stock Program.

I slid down so far that my legs were not even on the chair anymore. My heart pounded wildly. The minute hand moved at the pace of a snail. I was in science class, and I was in shock. I had just failed my assessment. I could barely comprehend the idea of failing because I had always done well in school. Growing up in my Caribbean household, academic success was a necessity so I could go to college, which is something my parents had not been able to do. At first, I felt that failure was a catastrophe that would hurt my parents and meant I was not cut-out for a career as a physician. I was going to throw it all away.

My parents always instilled in me and my siblings that although we did not have a lot, there were always others going through worse than us. Giving back was necessary to balance our blessings. When I was young, my mother took me to volunteer at local food drives. I loved the feeling of helping people and knew I wanted to continue doing it as I grew up. I wanted to go to medical school to be a physician, but this failure started to make me question my capability. My self-confidence plummeted and I began to reassess my career path. I kept thinking that failure was like an eternal red light, but it was actually just a stop sign, a momentary setback that would ultimately push me to try harder and gain confidence in myself.

My drive to be a physician was enough to motivate me to do everything I could to recover my grade in science and find ways to prevent such a failure in the future. Over the next three years, I became a sponge and absorbed as much information during class as I could. Instead of counting the seconds until class would be over, I paid attention, took notes, and stayed engaged. I began to see my work pay off and did dramatically better. I regained my confidence and motivation, and with my renewed drive, started seeking more opportunities: I started volunteering at a local hospital.

On my first day, I delivered a dozen bubblegum pink Minnie Mouse balloons to a little girl in the pediatric ward who was having surgery that afternoon. As I entered the girl’s room, her eyes instantly lit up. She was so excited by the balloons that her surgery felt less significant to her. I imagined how much more rewarding it would be to be her doctor and build a rapport with her while also helping to keep her healthy. During this volunteering experience, I discovered I wanted to specialize in pediatrics and was so grateful I did not give up on my aspiration because of one failure.

Her smile solidified all that I had been working towards after that first failed assessment. It gave me flashbacks to my childhood, giving out food with my mom and the happiness I felt helping others. I realized the failure was just a bump in the road and that I could become a physician if I did not allow failures to discourage me. Without having failed and recovered, I would not have the kind of resilience and self-efficacy I have today, and I would never get to be the great and caring physician I know I will become. My new outlook will give me the confidence to overcome life’s obstacles, so looking back, I am grateful for the experience of having failed.


 

High Need, High Achievement and Core Values are Keys to Developing Change-Makers

The Elevation Scholars program mines Central Florida’s Title I high schools for students exhibiting the non-profit’s core values of kindness, service, leadership, and discipline. It sets them on a course to become change-makers.

When the organization was in its foundational stages of turning concepts into an education-focused program, it couldn’t have found a better model for the kind of student it wanted to help than its first scholar – Revel Lubin.

Elevation Scholars’ founder learned about him from a news story on the Thanksgiving food drive he and other student government leaders had put together for homeless families of students at his school.

The backstory was the attention-grabber, though. Lubin and three of his siblings were being raised by their sister following their mother’s passing from an aneurysm seven years earlier. He had quit sports to get a job to help his sister pay the bills after their electricity had been cut off. He also happened to be student government president.

Kindness. Service. Leadership. Discipline.

“He had everything we were looking for,” said Scott Lee, Elevation Foundation President. “The only question we didn’t know was did he have the academics.”

He had the grades too, but he lacked the test scores and required classes that colleges typically look for.  Helping students develop a “college-going” culture would become a core tenant of Elevation Scholars’ program. The best investment would be money up front – a program that would begin when students are in 9th grade– with high-quality counseling and “intrusive advising and support.”

“We would spend a little money up front, like a down payment, and the colleges would come along and pay them many thousands in scholarships,” Lee says. “If we pick the right kid, this stuff will happen every single time. Those were our early realizations.”

Since its founding in 2013, Elevation Scholars has expanded to working with four Title I high schools where 92 percent of the students are considered low-income. Outreach to students begins with Elevation Club when students are in 9th grade. The monthly club meetings introduce them to everything they’ll need to compete for spots at some of the nation’s most selective universities.  Their goal is not just a college education but an education at one of the nation’s top 100 universities – an arena sorely lacking in college applicants who are the first in their families to attend, so-called first-generation college students.

The Elevation Scholar Award  is given to select students in their junior year – a five-year investment in the students not only to help them get to college but to guide them while they attend.

“The research is pretty clear,” Lee says. “It’s not the academics that cause first-gen kids not to succeed. It’s the idea of imposter syndrome – they feel like they don’t belong, along with limits on family financial support due to the implications of generational poverty. Little problems are impossible to overcome without outside support.”

The Elevation Scholars Award includes some earmarks not typically found in scholarship awards, like winter clothing – for a Florida kid who might get a full ride to Wake Forrest in North Carolina like the program’s second award winner – or professional clothing for joining professional organizations, travel money to ensure they have the ability to get back home for the holidays, and even gear they’ll need for dorm life. In summers, students will participate in paid internships at businesses and organizations in partnership with Elevation Scholars.

Over the next four years, Elevation Scholars, a new grantee partner of Johnson Scholarship Foundation, expects to expand into four additional schools and award 92 additional Elevation Scholar Awards by 2025.

Revel Lubin

To win an Elevation Scholar Award, it’s more than a matter of high achieving and high need, Lee says. The students selected also must exhibit Elevation Scholars’ core values – kindness, service, leadership, and discipline. “These kids have a unique set of strengths, and already are demonstrating positive community impact, and that’s really what we’re investing in,” Lee says. “The idea is ultimately to see our investment increase their capacity to impact their community.”

Since the program’s founding, seven cohorts of scholars have attended prestigious universities across the country.  And that first scholar, Revel Lubin, continues the journey he plotted under the guidance of Elevation Scholars. He’s a finalist for Central Floridian of the Year, and he attends Yale Divinity School.

“It’s amazing how many high-achieving leaders there are at our Title I schools,” Lee says.



Angie Francalancia is a communications specialist with Johnson Scholarship Foundation

 

The First Steps to Success – Commitment

The following is an essay from a student in the Johnson Take Stock Program. He shares his thoughts of commitment to college.

College ‒ a goal my family had set for me long before I knew how to read. College used to be something I never thought I’d reach. As a child I never thought I would be stepping out into the world without my parents’ complete guidance and assistance. Frankly the thought of transitioning into adulthood is still frightening. My name is Steven Portillo, and this is the story of my life, my aspirations, and a declaration of my future success.

College means the world to me, now more than ever. My goal since I was young was to eventually start a family, to be able to provide for my family, and to be able to put a smile on as many faces as possible. As a young boy this dream seemed nearly impossible, but yet, so many people have managed to put themselves in the position I dreamed of. How? At a young age I started listening to motivational speeches and reading novels on financial success. If I am to become those who I idolize, I must first understand what they did, and follow in their footsteps. Mankind has never achieved anything great without the information and assistance of others. Knowledge was meant to be shared for the prosperity of all. This leads to a fundamental part to my future success, and that’s the support systems I’ve been blessed with.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to be a JTSP scholar. Without these amazing people, I would have struggled much more with constructing a plan to go to college and to further myself in life. Support from my family, friends, and even strangers has allowed me to conquer obstacles I never believed existed. I believe it is my duty to share my support and knowledge with others. Prosperity should be something that everyone can obtain. I believe in the “Pursuit of happiness.” Success to me is so much more than money. Success is to be able to not only provide for yourself but to be able to support others through their struggles.

I am declaring now, I WILL be successful. I will work my hardest, even when others say it’s foolish.  I am determined to become my best self, and in the future I will continue to make goals, because I never want to stop growing. Motivation always starts with yourself. I remember the first time I attempted to work out. Oh my, what an experience! This was an attempt at a long term goal that required dedication and determination. I will never forget the first time I was able to lift 200 lbs. When I first started I could only lift 100. This was when I knew that these types of results could be applied to other parts of my life. Work while others are resting. Work now so that later you can enjoy the spoils of life. Your future is what you make of it. If you’re determined to make it to your destination, you’ll get there. You just have to believe in the process.

I am Steven Portillo, and this is the story of who I am, who I want to be, and the success I am sure to obtain in my future.


Steven Portillo is a senior at William T. Dwyer High School and a Johnson Take Stock Scholar.