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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.


 

In School and in Life, Graduating Senior Demonstrates Leadership

This post originally appeared in the Lake Worth High School Alumni Foundation newsletter.

It’s tough enough to excel academically in high school, and even tougher when you’re also a veteran on the football team. But tough situations don’t intimidate recent Lake Worth Community High School graduate Matthew Narcisse.

Narcisse earned a 4.18 HPA while playing on the Trojans football team all four years. He’s also been involved with the wrestling and weightlifting teams, Air Force JROTC, the Drafting and Design Academy and the Interact Club, among other activities. During a recent summer, he was chosen to attend a Rotary Youth Leadership Camp.

Unlike many of his classmates, however, he has responsibilities that continue beyond the school day. He is a caregiver for his mother, who survived a debilitating stroke in 2012.

“One thing I’ve learned is how to sacrifice and how to manage my time,” said Narcisse, who has four brothers and two sisters, plus an extended family in Haiti.

He also has endured his own health challenges. As a child, he suffered a broken femur in a car accident. The injury affects his running ability even today. As an athlete, “I always push myself,” he said.

Off the playing field, Narcisse aspires to be a civil engineer.  “What civil engineers do is they help build communities,” he said.

To achieve his goal, he’s spent the past four years in the Johnson Scholars/Take Stock in Children Palm Beach County program. This college readiness program, which includes the opportunity to meet regularly with a mentor, offers participants a chance to graduate with a two-year college scholarship. The program is a collaboration between the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, Take Stock in Children and the School District of Palm Beach County.

His hard work and diligence have not gone unnoticed. Narcisse was his school’s nominee for Take Stock in Children’s 2019 Leaders for Life Fellowship, an honor awarded to only a handful of students in Florida (this year Glades Central Community High School graduate Marie Sintulaire was named a Leaders for Life Fellow). One of his teachers wrote a letter on his behalf that reads, in part, “It is rare that I meet a student with the drive, resiliency and verbal abilities to self-advocate as Matthew Narcisse.”

Matthew Narcisse on stage with a medal

He also was chosen to speak to his fellow graduates at the Johnson Scholars/Take Stock graduation event in May. In attendance for the event was Narcisse’s mentor, Pat Growney.

This fall, Narcisse will study civil engineering at the University of Florida. He has been chosen for the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars, a nationally recognized program for first-generation college students.

“My life situations have empowered me,” he said. “When I face adversity in the future, I will just persevere and stay faithful.”

First-Generation Student Overcomes Challenges on Path to Wall Street Career

If you had asked 18-year-old Mohamad Merilan where he would be after college, he would not have said, “working on Wall Street.” Merilan is now working for Credit Suisse in the Research Clearance Technology division.

Mohamad Merilan

Merilan went from attending D-ranked public schools without the promise of higher education to graduating from the University of Florida with a job offer to work on Wall Street. Throughout his life thus far, Merilan embodies success, service and the American Dream.

Growing up in Orlando, Florida, as one out of eight children of two Haitian immigrant parents, Merilan’s father left the picture when he was 12 years old. As the sole English speaker among his family, he had to learn to write checks, manage his mother’s car insurance and handle her mortgage.  

Merilan was not introduced to the idea of college until sixth grade when his social studies teacher at Carver Middle School, Cynthia Davis, advocated for all her students to pursue a college education.

Merilan paired his telecommunication degree with campus involvement in programs like the Engineering Leadership Certificate, Management Leadership for Tomorrow, the National Society of Black Engineers, Florida Blue Key and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Out of all of his involvements, though, arguably his most influential contribution was holding golf clinics for minority engineering students. As a first-generation college student and a Machen Florida Opportunity Scholar, Merilan understands the importance of giving back and effecting change.

 Former University of Florida President Dr. Bernie Machen, Mohamad Merilan, David Whitney (Merilan's mentor) and University President Dr. Kent Fuchs.
From left: Former University of Florida President Dr. Bernie Machen, Mohamad Merilan, David Whitney (Merilan’s mentor) and University President Dr. Kent Fuchs.

His social studies teacher always advised Merilan that he would need to find a way to fund his college education since he was a child, and the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholarship did just that. “Without the MFOS program, I wouldn’t have been able to attend college,” Merilan said.

Mentors such as Cynthia Davis, David Whitney and Dr. Tommy Dorsey have been key stakeholders in Merilan’s rise to success. “I don’t know where I would be if they weren’t primary influencers in my life.”

Supporting First-Generation Students

What are some ways in which institutions can support first-generation college students? The following podcast, courtesy of the University of Florida’s Office of Faculty Development and Teaching Excellence, features insights from first-generation University of Florida student Adrian Cruz and Dr. Leslie Pendleton, director of the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars Program. The Johnson Scholarship Foundation was an early supporter of this nationally recognized program.

Dr. Leslie Pendleton is the Senior Director of Retention and Success Initiatives in the Division of Student Affairs at the University of Florida. Within this role, she serves as Director of the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars Program and supervises the Disability Resource Center.

Adrian Cruz is a first-generation student at the University of Florida and a Machen Scholar.