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Tag Archive for: Take Stock in Children/Johnson Scholars Program

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.

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.

The Girl That Lived Her Life with Two Personalities

Angie Pleitez is a student at Santaluces Community High School in Palm Beach County, Florida, and a member of the Take Stock in Children/Johnson Scholars Program. Below are excerpts of an article she wrote as part of the program. 

Hello. My name is Angie Pleitez and I would like to share my story, the story that made me realize to always be grateful for everything that happens to you, whether it’s good or bad. Ever since I was little, I was depicted as the person in my family that could be different from the rest. My parents always reassured me that I was going to be the one in the family to make a difference and rise to the top. They always told me that I had the opportunity that no one else in my family had, which was to get a full education and be someone important in the world. I am the daughter of two immigrant parents who risked everything to give a better future for their child. That’s a huge amount of pressure to put on someone, but I didn’t think much of it when I was younger. I just thought of myself as just another child that played outside and hung out with her friends. What I didn’t know when I was younger was all the actions happening behind the scenes.

To start, when I was little, I had to stay with a babysitter most of the time because my mother worked from the morning to the night and my father would work from the morning to past midnight. Sometimes they would barely get sleep because when they came home, they still had to take care of me. From the time and effort they put in their laborious jobs, they were able to afford my school supplies, my backpack, after-school care, all necessary components for me to have the best school experience. They always praised me for getting good grades, which gave me boosts in my confidence and self-esteem. I was on the honor roll and earned recognition for my intelligence. I was always very proud of my intelligence and perseverance at such an early age. It continued this way all the way up to 5th grade. It was getting to that point where my life was going to take a sharp turn, which was my teen years.

I was scared that I was taking a huge step in my life. I’ve never liked change ever since I moved away from where I grew up when I was 7. I didn’t want to accept the fact that I was going to be in a different environment and going to be experiencing something I’ve never experienced before. My parents tried to reassure me that everything was going to be okay; that it’s just another phase of my life that everyone goes through as well, but I already had the idea instilled in me that things would go downhill from here. My middle school years destroyed not only my academic achievements but my self-worth. I was at my lowest point, and I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone. I was especially hesitant to tell my parents because I didn’t want them to know their “star child” wasn’t shining as bright as before. As time passed by, I could feel that I was slowly starting to lose myself. I felt unhappy and unmotivated all the time, and I didn’t care for most things anymore. I felt numb and I felt like I wasn’t living a life anymore – at least, not the life I wanted to lead. I was willing to do anything to take the pain away which would have led to life-threatening consequences. I’m glad that I stuck around because I later on realized that the pain doesn’t last forever and that things get better, maybe not right away but they eventually do. This is when I found the Take Stock in Children/Johnson Scholars Program.

The program opened my eyes to see that I still had an opportunity to turn myself around. It felt like this program could be my chance of getting out of this dark place I was heading into. I found it as I was entering high school, and I can honestly say that it turned my life around for the better. I felt myself getting my academic achievements back and the joy of feeling proud of myself back. I felt like I had a purpose again, a purpose to keep going and continue to always do better than the day before. I started doing better in school and got recognized for all the great things I was doing. I felt my parents grow happier and their pride for me grew. I talk to them about my future and college and they can’t help but be so overwhelmed with happiness. Yes, there are many obstacles that try to knock me down to the position I was in before, but I grew out of that point in my life and I don’t ever want to go back. I’m proud of how far I’ve come, no matter the circumstances my family and I go through.

The Take Stock/Johnson Scholars Program, my family, and the friends who actually want the best for me have helped me realize that life is worth so much. I can create a great future for myself if I want to. I can go to a great college if I want to. I have a chance that not many people have, and that means so much to me.


Angie Pleitez is a Junior at Santaluces Community High School

On becoming a leader by becoming a soldier

Jhonatan Montejo Benito is a senior at Jupiter Community High School and a participant in the Take Stock in Children/Johnson Scholars Program. He wrote this essay outlining his future plans as part of the program.

One afternoon, at the age of six, I was watching the news with my grandfather, and I saw how US Naval Carriers were mobilizing. I could only imagine their actual size and what they were capable of doing. With those images in my mind, I began to feel intimidated and to wonder if I could ever be a part of something that amazing. Some years later, the father of my closest cousins was ambushed on a bridge by drug traffickers, because he and other infantrymen were escorting equipment to another state in Guatemala. No one survived the attack. Both of these memories pushed me to begin working towards having a future in the infantry, because I honor those who are able to put their lives at risk, and because for me soldiers are the strongest people I have ever met. College for me is the place where I will build a strong foundation to be a great leader. The people closest to me are my strongest foundation, and they and my memories keep my motivation alive.

To begin with, I believe that the most effective way for me to reach my goal of working in the US Army Infantry is to train with the ROTC program to ultimately become a commissioned infantry officer. As a child I moved a significant number of times, and as a result, I don’t feel particularly attached to any one place, and thus I am committed to find the best education at the best place possible even if I have to begin at the bottom. Ideally, I would like to begin my college studies at either UF or West Point Academy, but my alternate plan would be to begin my college studies at a local state college where I will earn my associate’s degree and then move to a more competitive college, like UF to finish my bachelor’s degree. For me, going to college means that I am being prepared to work with the finest military in the world and that I am preparing myself to become a leader to which my soldiers will look up to. My goal to accomplish this is by continuing to improve myself in my favorite subjects, math and philosophy, and strengthen my body through training and making healthy choices. My parents, on the other hand, believe that going to college to then work in the military is a waste of time, and that the goal of college is a place for me to grow and become economically independent and successful. While I respect their opinion, I am determined to see my name on my uniform in service of the US Army. Overall, college will be the place where I will strengthen my foundations to become part of something bigger than myself and a person that others could look up to.

Moreover, as I grew up and traveled to different places, I have had the opportunity to meet and learn from a number of influential people who have become very important to me, but even though I don’t see many of them anymore, I will make sure to conduct myself to bring credit to them. The first people to say thank you to are my family, beginning with my grandfather. He gave me important knowledge and skills that I have used and continue to use. He taught me how to tie my shoes and how to ride a bike, but most importantly, most afternoons he would sit with me and read to me either the news or the Bible. In addition, my parents were the pillars of my development. My parents are the people who are always there for me, but the most crucial part they had in my life was giving me a brighter future in the US, which opened for me a wide range of opportunities that I would never have had in a country like Guatemala.

Last but not least, there were teachers, faculty members, counselors and other people that I could not mention individually here because there is a limit of words, and the number of things they did for me are countless. But people that I would like to mention are various English teachers that I have had since sixth grade, my personal counselor, Mrs. Woeber, and my middle school second language support system. Mrs. Woeber was the person who introduced me to the Take Stock in Children/Johnson Scholars program, and for her and them I am eternally grateful. But it doesn’t matter who it was, they are important to me because they built me a staircase in which I was able to improve and grow.

To conclude, the journey that I made from the small town of El Paraiso in Guatemala to the eastern shores of the United States helped me construct a future that will not only enrich my life but hopefully the lives of others that I meet along the way during my experiences in the military and elsewhere. The most significant part of this journey wasn’t mostly about me, but the people that created who I am today. They are people that work hard and do extraordinary things for others. They give more than their one hundred percent at their job, and therefore I will pay them back when it will be time for me to put my hands at work by being the best person that I could be for me, others, and my younger sister.


Jhonatan Montejo Benito is a senior at Jupiter Community High School and a participant in the Take Stock in Children/Johnson Scholars Program.