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Tag Archive for: volunteering

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.