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Mentoring Pays Dividends – a Mentor Reflects on Connecting

I am a retired “people” person who is very active with church work, children, grandchildren, photography, tennis, investments, and travel. I have been a lifelong learner and am still learning. I consider education one of the keys to success in life and the ability to help young people reach their potential as a great opportunity and privilege. In 2010 a tennis friend of mine mentioned Take Stock in Children. I asked for more information and he told me how much he enjoyed the mentoring, the successes he had in helping students prepare for college and the friends he had made. He then said, Take Stock In Children needed volunteers to be mentors for local high school students.

After learning about the great work Take Stock does in Palm Beach County and in every county all over Florida helping high potential, low income students get the resources they need to graduate from high school and go on to college, I decided to become a mentor.

My first mentee in 2010 was Jason Kerr. I was very nervous before our first meeting. Would I be able to help? Would I be able to connect, develop rapport and inspire Jason to do his best? Of course I had taken TSIC training, read their mentoring program materials for goal setting, establishing accountability, and maintaining respect. I also had met TSIC leadership and was impressed with their experience and quality. But …. would I be able to turn their plans into progress for a millennial several generations out of my era?

One of the first things I learned about Jason as we began to get to know one another was he was a huge Miami Heat fan. He was a collector of Nike tennis shoes and actually did a little online business buying and selling them at unbelievable prices. The biggest shock to me was when he told me – and he was a sophomore – that he had never cracked a book and his GPA was 2.2.

I told him about growing up in the hills of Tennessee in a house without running water or electricity, about building my self-image and confidence by studying hard and graduating valedictorian of my senior class of 136. That led to a work study scholarship to the University of Tennessee, and I dropped out after three years to join the Marine Corps. While in service I got married, and my wife and I had our first daughter. I told him everybody thought that was the end of my college career but it wasn’t. We struggled, but I went back to UT and won a Bachelor’s in Engineering and then a master’s at UF. I told Jason progress in life seldom comes in a straight line. Never give up!

In order to develop even more rapport with Jason, I began watching the Heat regularly. Each week we would discuss all the stats and prospects for the playoffs. My wife began watching too! Although she has never shown any passion for sports, she soon became a Heat fan. She is now rabid about “her” Heat, and we now watch every game. She knows all the competing teams, players, and stats far better than I.

I encouraged Jason to start studying at least an hour a night. We talked about time management and how much time could be wasted without a plan and discipline. I told him the story of my kids going to summer school and taking classes that would allow them to take AP classes or have time for extracurricular activities like band, the school paper or drama. He got an after school job at LIDS. He decided to study Nursing at Palm Beach State College. His grades started coming up. He graduated with a 2.9 GPA.

After graduation Jason enrolled in Nursing at PBSC and took a job at the Cheesecake Factory. We still get together 2-3 times a year. Jason started out as a busboy. He is a fast learner, good worker, outgoing and energetic. Before long he was given the opportunity to be a baker and learned to make all the specialty desserts. He works thirty hours a week and goes to school although at a reduced course load. The first time we met him last year for lunch he was all excited. He had bought himself a new Volkswagen. The next time last year when Jason met my wife and I for lunch he surprised us again. He brought his new girlfriend. She was cute, friendly and ambitious and also a student at PBSC. My wife and I were really impressed with how my young mentee was growing up.

A few days after Thanksgiving I got a text from Jason inviting me to lunch. He wanted to discuss investments. I was happy. I love to talk about investments and the stock market. I know what you’re thinking. The stock market is no place for a young guy starting out. But Jason had figured out that bank deposits, CDs and money market accounts paid nothing and wanted an introduction to investing. Jason had also switched to a Business Accounting major and would get his AA degree in the spring. I asked him about his girlfriend, and he said she had dumped him. Why? Because he wasn’t getting through college fast enough!

But the good news is Jason has moved up to bartender at work and learned how to make all the drinks. Like I said, success rarely comes in a straight line: he was working about 30 hours a week, not making much progress in his business program when a friend told him about Palm Beach State’s Automotive Service Technology Career Certificate Program. Jason jumped at the opportunity to take the certificate course and work at a dealership at the same time. He began to excel at the technical course work and loved the hands on part. At the dealership, they started him out doing oil changes and there was a lot of sitting around while they kept the experienced techs busy. He wasn’t too happy until he finished at PBSC and moved to another dealership and began removing and installing entire engines on warranty. He was now growing in confidence and making a decent living.

As time moved on Jason stayed busy, found a new girlfriend, fell in love, started a family and began thinking about the next step up in his career. He had his eye on a service advisor position. This would be a full-time job working with the customers and best of all it comes with a salary and benefits which a family man needs. Family man indeed! Jason and Gabby welcomed Olivia into their home in October 2021.

I contacted Jason recently.to get an update. He sounded so excited. He changed dealerships several months ago and got his service advisor position and “Olivia is getting so big!” This sounds like success to me but something tells me Jason isn’t done yet.

By the way as I write this my wife is waiting for me to come watch the Heat with her. In the meantime this 82-year-old is very happy with his 30-year-old friend who is proving that even today one can still achieve the American dream.

Mentoring is a key component of the success of every participant in the Take Stock in Children Palm Beach County Program, a grantee partner of Johnson Scholarship Foundation. Each year more than 350 mentors participate in the program. If you would like to contribute as a mentor, please contact Kimberly Briard at KBriard@takestockpalmbeach.org.


Bill Brohawn is a mentor with the Take Stock in Children program.

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.

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.