Thursday, March 22, 2012

Aisha L. Williams - Pay it Forward: I'm 1st Gen, Are You?

I have always had a different outlook on life. As a child, I was very curious and would always question why things had to be the way they were and wondered who created these norms and rules. Growing up in some of the rougher parts of Miami, Florida, I was exposed to many things some people will never see in their lifetime. I learned at an early age that I wanted more out of life. I couldn’t quite express it or knew exactly what it was, but I knew that I wanted better than what was around. I stayed with my grandma and aunt during the earlier years of my life while my mother battled her drug addiction. Once she was cleaned and got herself together, I moved back and forth between living with her and my other siblings and my grandma. Although we lived in some rough neighborhoods, my mom always told us that our home was inside and not outside. She never let what was going on around us affect her desire of wanting more for us. Education was something my mom pushed and something I wanted for myself as well.
School was never difficult to me. I always excelled in academics and by the time I was in eighth grade, I was reading on the level of a freshman in college and math scores of a high school junior. When it came time for high school, I was super excited until I learned that I would not be able to attend the school of my choice. Disappointed, I enrolled in the local high school. High school was one of the toughest periods in my life. I entered high school defeated. I was very reserved and kept to myself. In class, I wouldn’t speak to anyone and just wasn’t interested. I had two friends in high school that got me through. My grades were not good and definitely not what I was used too. I was simply going through the motions. I was not excited to be there and shut down. Aside from school, I had responsibilities at home as well. Being the oldest girl, I was expected to help around the house. On days my mom worked late, I would come home, cook, and help my little brother and sister with their homework. It was a tiring process sometimes and I felt as though I was missing out on some of my high school experience. During the summer before my senior year of high school is when I decided to seriously think about college. I knew that I wanted to go, but hadn’t really been preparing myself for the opportunity.
October of my senior year, the University of Florida (UF) came to my high school, did a presentation about college, and spoke about a shadow day where we would get the opportunity to see the campus and experience college. It sparked my interest so I signed up to participate. When I went to UF for Shadow Days, I fell in love with the university and knew that was where I wanted to be. My best friend and me had it all planned out; we would be roommates and all. The staff at UF was very helpful and I couldn’t wait to start the process. When I got home, I started filling out everything. I also applied to other schools as well. When the letter from UF came that day, I was so excited, but it wouldn’t last for long. I was rejected because I waited too long to retake my SAT’s. At that point, I felt my future slipping from me. All the plans I had set in motion had just been crushed. Feeling real low, the next week, I received three acceptance letters from various universities. This lifted my spirits and let me know that college was still within my grasp. It was then that I made a decision to take my future in my own hands. No longer would I play around and not take things serious. Choosing a college was one of the most liberating experiences because it was a decision that I had made on my own. From that day forward, I decided that there would be some changes made.
I decided to attend Florida International University (FIU). Entering FIU, I was determined to not let my college years pass me by. During orientation, I was placed in a group that would have to be tested to see if we were up to university standards or would need to take remedial courses. I was confused as to why I was in the group and felt as if I didn’t belong. The lady who was over the group was already handing us papers to dual enroll at the local community college before we had even taken the test. I asked her why and she said, because your high school didn’t prepare you adequately for college and you will probably fail, so fill out the paperwork now. I was completely turned off and was determined to show her. I passed the test, not missing any questions. It felt so good to tear the papers up in her face and walk out of that group. I excelled in my summer classes and was getting use to college, but it didn’t feel quite right. As the summer came, went, and then began fall semester, I found myself slipping into the same pattern as high school. I would come to school, go to my classes, get something to eat, and then go home. I felt like my experience was slipping away from me. I wanted to be able to look back at my college years and have tons of lasting memories. Determined not to let that happened I decided to get involved. I didn’t know that this would be the best decision I had ever made.
My first involvement and leadership position at FIU was as a Peer Advisor with the Office of Orientation and Commuter Services. This was the best position ever. Being a Peer Advisor gave me the opportunity to learn about my university rich history, how the university was ran and operated, and instilled great pride for my institution. It also taught me how to do college, which would help me out for the rest of my year at FIU. Serving as a Peer Advisor opened the gates to involvement for me. I help leadership positions within Student Government Association (SGA), Homecoming and worked within the Career Services offices. It was with two particular groups where I would find my niche at FIU. I became involved in the Black Student (BSU) on campus. Attending a Hispanic Serving Institution, being involved in this organization allowed me to connect with other students of the African diaspora. I was apart of the group of students that fought for our BSU to become a standing council under SGA so that we could received more aid, and better service the population of students. While at FIU, we made BSU apart of the FIU community and partnered up with various organizations. It was a great way for other students to learn and enjoy our culture and gave me a sense of belonging and pride at my campus. My work with the Women’s Center on campus also helped build my connections on campus as well. I served as the Chapter Director and Mentor for a non-profit organization called Strong Women, Strong Girls (SWSG). It was there I would discover my love of mentoring and giving back. We mentored girls in grades 3-5 and also served as a support system for the mentors. I was able to help young girls start to visualize their goals and serve as a resource to some of the mentors who may have been a freshmen or sophomore, to help them navigate through college.
Throughout all my various involvement, I came to learn about the field of student affairs. I had mentors who took interest in me and saw that I would be great for the field. Once looking into it, I knew instantly that it was something that I wanted to do—maybe even set-up this way from the beginning. I became interested in the field of student affairs, because I wanted to be the positive role model and advocate for students that I saw many of the student affairs professionals at my undergraduate institution did daily. They inspired me to do better, challenged and supported me, and were instrumental in my success and ultimately graduating. They help shaped me into the woman I am today and continue to inspire me. I want to someday be able to inspire change and set a positive example for the students I work with, with my actions and encourage them with my words. I want to be the help that someone was to me and pay it forward. On my way up, I want to be able to extend my hand and pull someone up with me, so that they can do the same.
I decided to partake in this project, because I’m hoping to give a different perspective on how and the way we look at first generation students. I didn’t realize I was a first generation student until my junior year in college. Although I was first generation, I had a brother and cousins who went to college before me, so the concept of college wasn’t new to me. I also want to hear the stories of others, give them a voice and space to share their stories, and learn how we can apply this knowledge to the students we serve.
Growing up, some would say the odds were stacked against me and some may even consider me a success story. I simply wanted more for myself and works hard everyday, so that my future will be a little brighter. Remembering my, humble beginnings is what keeps me grounded and striving for all the things I want to accomplish. I work for my family and for them to be proud of the woman I have become and to know their sacrifices have not been in vain. I want to make my niece, who looks up to her Auntie Aisha, feel proud of all that I’m doing and serve as a resource for her when she someday decides what her future will be. I’m a first generation student, and this is my story. Be heard!

1 comment:

  1. Aisha,

    What an awesome story! The word that comes to mind is 'determination.' You clearly have that spirit that defies those individuals who have told you that you won't live up to expectations. The story of your first days in college was especially inspiring. Clearly you were not only prepared for college, but you would be fully prepared for graduate school by the time you left FIU! I love those stories where individuals overcome their environmental circumstances and the beliefs of authority figures who have no right to tell a person how big they should dream. I enjoyed hearing your first-gen story, and I love how you use your memories of your past to create a better present and future for yourself. Go get 'em, Aisha. :)