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First-Gen Student Shares Lessons Learned

In honor of celebrating National First-Gen Day, a first-generation student in the UF/IFAS College of¬†Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) reflects on her undergraduate experience that led her to continue her education as a master’s student within the college.

I had never gone on an official University of Florida visit before submitting my freshman college application. Growing up, I had heard of the university but wasn’t familiar with any of their programs or opportunities. In high school, the conversations about college choices kept coming up and I didn’t really have a strong answer.

As many first-generation college students may understand, my parents were very supportive but they weren’t very familiar with the college application process. I leaned on my high school mentors while exploring my options. I found that the University of Florida had strong academic programs, a variety of student organizations and a very competitive acceptance rate. Knowing that, I held the achievement of attending UF to be a personal goal of mine.

On February 14, 2014 — yes, on Valentine’s Day — I was officially a Florida Gator.

After celebrating, the reality of planning my financial future set in; I knew the cost would be a concern. I attended a Preview orientation session, which made me so excited to start college that same summer. I decided I would figure out the finances and make it work. I wanted to be here. I had just started Summer B as a freshman when I found an email invitation to learn more about a scholarship I would be receiving.

I remember the day perfectly. I was in Pugh Hall’s auditorium where students were sprinkled around the room and a warm, welcoming smile came from a woman who stood at the front of the room and introduced herself as Leslie Pendleton, director of the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholarship Program. Pendleton explained that every freshman in this room had at least one thing in common — we were all first in our families to go to college. The scholarship we would be officially receiving after that day would provide us with a complete grant and scholarship package to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Overwhelming relief flooded over me. That was when I knew I had support here at UF. I knew I was meant be to be here.

Since that day, I have been fortunate to gain opportunities and knowledge along my journey as a student in CALS. At UF, I was given pride in my identity as a first-generation college student. With that, I felt empowered to embrace my failures and enjoy my successes.

Stay motivated in the unknown

Initially, I wasn’t quite sure what to major in so I chose a business major per my parents’ advice. They felt that track would help me quickly find a job after graduation. Soon, I found that I was yearning for more in my coursework, so I chose the animal sciences major in CALS with the intention of applying to veterinary school. After failing calculus and chemistry — twice — I had to face the fact that a DVM was definitely not happening anymore.

Following that harsh reality, I went out on a limb and enrolled in the Wildlife of Florida class the spring semester of my sophomore year. My entire career plan shifted after that class. Every opportunity that followed continued to inspire me. I changed my major to wildlife ecology and conservation, where my classes included swimming with manatees and camping. Through my major, I earned an internship on a cattle ranch that leased land to hunters. I knew I was on the right career path.

After graduating in December 2018, I decided to stay at UF to obtain my master’s degree in agricultural education and communication. Now, I study science communication specifically in the context of environmental science and conservation using digital technology. Had you told me that my first day of freshman year, I would’ve thought you were crazy!

Find your campus community

Volunteering with Manatee health assessment surveys with fellow Wildlife Society members.

During my time at UF, I got involved with various student organizations. Through those interactions I found a support system, was introduced to invaluable experiences and was able to make friends with UF students from different walks of life.

As a CALS Ambassador, I represented the college by attending various community and campus events. Through First Year Florida, I was not only enrolled in the course as a freshman but I was also selected to serve as a Peer Leader alongside a faculty mentor by introducing students to the university. I was also involved in the Freshman Leadership Council (FLC) organized by Student Government. When I was an aspiring vet I joined the Pre-Vet Club. Soon after I switched into my wildlife ecology and conservation major, I joined The Wildlife Society.

These areas of involvement as a undergraduate allowed me to find my niche as a CALS student. Now, as a graduate student I am involved in my department’s graduate association planning social events, attending professional workshops and supporting fellow members.

Give back to the community

Presenting on Florida native wildlife at an elementary school STEM fair.

Throughout my time as a member of the UF community, it was emphasized that we get involved outside of our campus bubble. In fact, one of the three pillars of our land-grant system is Extension outreach into every county community in Florida. UF/IFAS Extension is a mission within land-grant colleges like CALS. It emphasizes taking knowledge gained at the university and bringing it directly to people to make a positive impact.

With that, CALS students should all strive to exhibit an Extension initiative within themselves. It can be volunteering at a local food bank, fostering a cat or dog from the local shelter, mentoring middle school students on their science fair projects, or signing up to be a camp counselor! Currently, I volunteer as an Alachua County Science Fair judge and really enjoy seeing students’ projects. This is something YOU could do too.

Help others

No matter what, I always remember that it is a privilege to be where I am now. I thoroughly enjoy helping others achieve their goals and find their passion. Currently, as a graduate assistant I enjoy meeting with students during the CALS Coffee and Careers events, reviewing their resumes and discussing their career goals. I believe as a graduate from UF it is my responsibility to use my passion and purpose as a platform to serve others.

The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences offers undergraduate majors in agricultural sciences, natural resources, forest and geospatial sciences, life sciences, social sciences and pre-professional studies. Find a CALS major that suits your interests by taking our majors quiz. You can also find information regarding our undergraduate and graduate programs on our website.

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