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Sweat Equity, Delayed Gratification, and One Senior’s Story of a Big Payoff

Meet Evan Cabrera, a member of the Johnson Scholars-Take Stock in Children program and recent graduate of Lake Worth High School. Cabrera will be heading to Florida Atlantic University in the fall on a full ride scholarship as a participant in the Kelly/Strul Emerging Scholars Program. He is one of four students in the Johnson Scholars-Take Stock in Children program to receive the honor for academically talented, first-generation students. They are among 15 high school seniors in Florida to receive the scholarships.

In a recent conversation with us, Cabrera shared his thoughts about his success, some private struggles, and his advice for other students.

JSF: Evan, tell us a little about what it took to receive not one but two full scholarships.

EC: In my junior year I was asked to apply for the Leaders for Life scholarship. (The Leaders for Life full scholarship is awarded to six Take Stock in Children scholars from across the state.) At that point, that was the first scholarship I was applying for. It was a pretty big packet. (Take Stock in Children Palm Beach County Executive Director ) Nancy Stellway really helped me a lot. I turned out to be a semi-finalist. It put me down a little bit. But she said my application was really good, and told me I could apply for this other scholarship. I thought of it as a little failure that I had. But I realized a lot of people who might have edged me out didn’t even apply. And I realized it’s just some more minutes to put into it.

Evan Cabrera in Graduation Gown

I remember hearing the term “sweat equity.” I thought about that a lot. I have to put in the work now. I applied for the Kelly/Strul and another from the Scholastic Achievement Foundation. I remember thinking ‘I’m applying for two separate four-year scholarships to the same school. How crazy if I got them both.’ And I did! I know I’m really grateful just being in this position.

JSF: In your essays, you talk about some difficulties in your family during high school. How did that affect you?

EC: In my sophomore year, my brother was arrested at our house. When the police came to our house, I was the first one handcuffed, interrogated. It was traumatic. It’s still traumatic to think about sometimes, even though I know the police are not going after me. I didn’t share it with many people. It gave me insight into what I was doing in my life. (At Johnson Scholars-Take Stock,) only a few people knew. My mentor knew. Anytime I was in that environment it was always happiness. I liked the meetings we had. It helped me a lot without them really knowing.

Evan Cabrera in mangroves with trash bag

I never questioned if my school or other potential outlets were worthwhile. I cannot set my expectations too high. My goal was not to get straight A’s. I just thought, ‘let me do good and care,’ and I got straight A’s. I started my own club outside of school. That’s where I devoted a lot of, let’s say, my bottled emotions. It’s called PB4Planet. I found out there was a climate strike in West Palm Beach. I contacted the organizer and said I wanted to be involved. I’ve always been interested in renewable resources and renewable energy. I was always into science. I wanted to make some difference. I knew political change is very difficult. I started that club with high school kids to make inspirational change. We’ve done beach cleanups, we did a mangrove cleanup in Boynton Beach. It’s something I’m going to continue while in university. Since I’ve always been interested in renewable energy, I hope to become a civil engineer and focus on building homes to a more eco-friendly standard.

JSF: What advice do you have for other young people contemplating their future?

EC: It’s extremely hard for someone, especially in my generation, to see the long-term goal. So it’s hard to put in the effort initially. I think that’s the perspective of why so many people are complaining about us. For me, just putting in that sweat equity without even knowing what that end goal would be, it fulfilled me. When I started doing well in school, I had some guys say, ‘oh, he’s probably a nerd.’ If you know you have potential within yourself, don’t go for the mainstream mentality of immediate rewards. Too many guys think, ‘I have to do certain things to fit in.’ Well, sometimes you don’t need to fit in. After I started getting all this positive attention for the things I was doing everybody just started respecting me. It’s all worth it. I only realize these things because I’ve had an open mind to learn from mistakes.

Evan Cabrera is a recent Lake Worth High School graduate and recipient of a full-ride scholarship to Florida Atlantic University through the Kelly/Strul Emerging Scholars Program.

Wine Industry Scholarship Program Provides Opportunities for First-Generation Students

The Johnson Scholarship Foundation and Sonoma State University (SSU) are partnering to support an innovative scholarship program focused on first-generation, low-income students whose families are connected to the wine industry. SSU is located in the heart of California’s premier wine region and serves approximately 9,300 students annually. Approximately 30 percent of SSU students are first-generation, low-income, or from underserved populations. Given the location of our campus, many of these students have family members employed by wineries.

Large group of students in front of the Wine Spectator Learning Center at Sonoma State University
Students in the Summer Bridge orientation program pose for a photo in front of the Wine Spectator Learning Center at Sonoma State University. SSU hosts Summer Bridge for first-generation low-income students in the summer prior to their first year on campus.

Given the wine industry’s interest in supporting the children of employees— as well as educating the future workforce —SSU’s Wine Business Institute started the Wine Industry Scholarship Program (WISP) in 2016. WISP is designed to attract financial support for first-generation, low-income students who have family ties to the wine industry. WISP scholarship recipients do not need to be pursing wine business as a major: they simply need to have a family member who is employed in the wine industry, for example a vineyard worker or cellar staff member.

The Wine Industry Scholarship Program has expanded to attract financial support for SSU’s academic and career services for first-generation, low-income students. The additional advisors and programs created by WISP now serve nearly 2,000 students each year, in addition to the students who receive WISP scholarships.

WISP began as a program offering students $2,500 scholarships that are renewable for up to four years ($10,000 total). Thanks to the generosity of SSU’s winery partners, SSU quickly secured commitments from some of the industry’s largest names, including Korbel, Rodney Strong, and SSU’s first cohort of WISP scholars in 2017 featured 15 students, with 27 WISP scholarships awarded in 2018 and an additional 27 in 2019. To date, SSU has awarded WISP scholarships to 69 students for a total of nearly $700,000 in scholarship support in just three years!

Sonoma State University Logo

The guidance and financial support of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation (JSF) has inspired SSU to grow its ambitions for how the campus can assist first-generation, low-income students. SSU is currently laying the groundwork for a much larger fundraising effort that will create a WISP scholarship endowment and bring in significant additional funds to enhance our overall support for the students who need it most.

SSU is grateful to the Johnson Scholarship Foundation for its commitment to provide 10 WISP scholarship matching gifts in 2020 and 2021. JSF is also providing a match commitment for WISP endowment gifts in subsequent years. SSU anticipates another remarkable program transformation as a result of this new fundraising effort, on the scale of the one that has taken place in the last two years. SSU looks forward to securing scholarship funds and program support that will benefit SSU students for generations to come.

Khou Yang-Vigil is the Educational Opportunity Program Coordinator and Professional Academic Advisor at Sonoma State University.

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.

What We Have Learned About Preparing Transfer Students

The following post is based on a soon to be published chapter in Building Transfer Student Pathways for College and Career Success, Joseph & Poisel, (Editors), National Resource Center for The First Year Experience & Students in Transition.

Woman writing and holding a laptop

In the last twenty-five plus years, we have had the opportunity to work intentionally on designing transfer pathways for students who start at a community college and complete a bachelor’s degree at a university. While most community colleges were founded with this “transfer mission,” educators have long known that the transfer student experience is not particularly linear or smooth. Recent research has shown that nationally, 29 percent of entering community college “transfer” students earned a certificate or associates degree and 42 percent complete a bachelor’s degree in six years (Jenkins & Fink, 2016). The issues include universities not accepting all of the credits earned at the community college; students not completing the correct pre-requisite courses for their intended university major; students changing their university major once they enroll there; and what is commonly called “transfer shock” such as adjusting to larger classes and classrooms, different faculty expectations, academic technology, increased academic program rigor, and complex university procedures.

Three students at Valencia CollegeIn the last 10 years, there has been an increased focus among community colleges to be more intentional in getting students on a “pathway” that reduces course choice by clarifying exactly what courses students need to complete each term in order to prepare for a specific university major (Completion by Design, 2011; Complete College America, 2018; Guided Pathways, 2015).  Most educators who delve into transfer pathways gain a quick understanding of why the choices are confusing to students, particularly community college students, who are more likely to be first-generation college students and have to negotiate their way through not just one, but two institutions. Sorting out common prerequisites, program prerequisites, electives that are “recommended” or true “electives” from the descriptions in college catalogs is a lesson in the real complexity of academic programs. Pathways programs are designed to simplify student choices, making the path from the associate’s degree to the bachelor’s degree more transparent. Pathways assist students and advisors with clarifying the coursework to take at the community college so that the courses both transfer and apply to the specific bachelor’s degree the student aspires to complete at the university.

Woman writing on a pad of paperPathways are an important means to improve student transfer success, but the curricular clarity that defines many pathways programs is not all that is necessary to prepare students to be transfer-ready. There are additional factors that should be considered by transfer students, and community college and university educators who are working to prepare students, for a successful transition and completion of their bachelor’s degrees.

  • Personal aspirations – “People like me can …” Our view of the world is shaped by what we see the people from “our kind of background” doing. In order to consider additional options, students need to believe that people from a background like theirs can be successful, belong, and are welcomed into higher education in general, and in whatever aspirational profession they are considering (e.g., engineer, doctor, teacher, nurse, scientist, computer programmer). There are many examples of people who have reached aspirations well beyond their beginnings, but psychologically it has to begin with an individual’s belief that it is possible.
  • Purpose – Students need to clarify their personal direction and goals, and tie their career goals to a set of educational programs that can move them in that direction, even as those goals emerge and change over time.
  • Curricular plan – Students complete course prerequisites for specific bachelor’s programs with few excess credits so that all (or most) lower-division coursework satisfies the requirements for the bachelor’s degree and permits direct entry into upper-division (junior level) course work.
  • Academic preparation – Students demonstrate the ability to achieve in the specific academic discipline they are pursuing, including the ability to demonstrate academic rigor, knowing how to persist when the academic work is challenging, knowing how to engage faculty for productive assistance, and knowing the expectations for learning (learning how to learn) in the specific academic discipline.
  • Career preparation – Students understand the expectations for professional behavior in the career field for which they are preparing. This may include learning through undergraduate research, internships, and academic mentors. It includes gaining an understanding of what is involved in the day-to-day life of the chosen profession and committing to the life that it entails.
  • Social preparation – Students understand and adopt behavioral expectations for success at the university. This includes physical and behavioral navigation, an emphasis on independence, the ability to self-advocate, and the ability to plan financially as well as career and academically for degree completion.

The implications for students, community colleges and universities include a concerted focus on career and academic planning, as well as other forms of student preparation and development. We believe this comprehensive approach to transfer student programs and development will prepare more students to complete the bachelor’s degree and achieve their dreams.

Two women sitting at a desk with Valencia sign in backgroundThe Johnson Scholars program, which began at Valencia College and the University of Central Florida (UCF) in 2013, was designed to provide comprehensive support for community college students preparing to transfer. Valencia identifies scholarship recipients based on their academic interest in biomedical sciences, which has a specific degree path from Valencia to the UCF, both located at Valencia’s Osceola Campus. The scholarship creates a cohort of students with similar interests who support each other with the assistance of an assigned advisor. Faculty in the pre-requisite courses support students in learning what is needed to prepare for rigorous university study, including opportunities for undergraduate research.  The scholarship continues when students transfer to the university.  Valencia College and the University of Central Florida recognize the achievement of Johnson Scholars who have been successful in transfer, as well as associate and bachelor’s degree completion.

Dr. Joyce C. Romano is Vice President for Educational Partnerships at Valencia College through which she works to improve the educational pathway for students from K-12 through community college and successful university transfer to bachelor’s completion. Dr. Romano has a B.A. in Psychology from State University of New York-College at Cortland, an M.S. in Counseling Psychology from Central Washington University, and an Ed.D. in Higher Education from the University of Kansas.

Maria Hesse serves as Vice Provost for Academic Partnerships at Arizona State University, helping to create and sustain productive relationships with community colleges and other institutions. Prior to coming to ASU in July 2009, Dr. Hesse served as President and CEO for Chandler-Gilbert Community College (CGCC), one of the Maricopa Community Colleges in the Phoenix area. Dr. Hesse holds Master of Business Administration and Bachelor of Science degrees from Arizona State University. She has Master and Doctoral degrees in Educational Leadership from Northern Arizona University and is a graduate of the Harvard Institute for Educational Management.