“You can do this!” “You are going to make it and be successful.” “Don’t let nothing stop you or stand in your way.” “Keep pushing through.”
Those are some of the most powerful words the mentors in my life have said to me. Those words have helped shaped me into the man I am today.
I’m from Baltimore, Maryland. I primarily grew up in West Baltimore raised by a single mom where my neighborhood was full of drugs, crime and poverty. I remember when I was in high school, my guidance counselor, Ms. Berkley, gave me encouraging words about going to college. Before I entered college, I had thoughts that I wasn’t smart or intelligent enough to make it through college, but Ms. Berkley, quickly erased that negative thinking. She told me that she believed I could make it through college and succeed, because I am intelligent and smart. She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself at the time. From there I knew she was a part of my support system, who only wanted the best for me in life. Those empowering words gave me the drive to pursue college, where I became the first in my family to attend college. It was a huge milestone. If you think about it, where I grew up, the only two options that the majority of people have is death or jail.
When I was applying and receiving scholarships to get ready for my first semester of college, two more mentors came into my life. The Myrtle Faithful Scholarship Fund is where I met Mrs. Neva Brown, and Mr. Mark Fuller. They both gave me the encouraging words on starting the college journey such as saying how proud they were of me, to chase my dreams, and continue to reach high no matter what. I greatly appreciated their words because to me it was much more than giving me a scholarship, it was also about making sure I was on the success path as I was embarking on this new journey at the time. That was a part of the scholarship’s foundation mission to do that.
When I arrived to college as a First-Generation student it was definitely a big culture shock and huge adjustment. It was like I was in a whole new world where I had to learn how to navigate college on my own. This ranged from time management, how to effectively study on a college level, how to schedule your own classes, and meeting professors’ expectations when it comes to their classroom work (e.g. term papers, reading very long chapters, and group projects). This was hard for me to get used to because unfortunately my high school didn’t prepare me fully for college (not to talk down or bash), but I’m just being honest and telling the truth. I got so frustrated, stressed, and unhappy that I almost went to the registrar’s office to tell them I wanted to drop out. It didn’t matter how many scholarships or grants I received, I needed the adequate preparation.
What saved me from wanting to drop out from college in my first semester was the various free retreat opportunities for students. There I was able to develop relationships with the staff on campus including Raft Woodus, Teri Hall, Yvonne Hardy-Phillips, Deb Moriarty, Dirron Allen, Terri-Massie Burrell, Lisa Simmons and many, many others. It is because of these people who were determined to not let me give up on myself that I got through college and graduated. They did this by continuously giving me encouraging words, connecting me to resources on campus to make sure that I was academically successful, and getting me involved with campus activities to make sure I felt connected to the campus community.
I will never forget a time when I was an undergraduate that I had taken a sociology course and my professor, Dr. Clifford, had given us several term papers to write. When I completed them I had a lot of red marks on my papers because of grammatical errors, formatting problems, and run-on sentences. One day she mentioned on one of my papers to come and see her during office hours. When I went to her office hours, she sat down with me and told me with care that I had to improve my writing skills because it is crucial in order to advance in the professional world. I realized at that moment she was right because I didn’t get the proper training from my high school, and here I was learning the hard way. She told me this was not to hurt me but help me in the long run. She said she cared about me, my education and only wanted the best for me. She told me that I was really intelligent and believed in me because I was a really good student. But again, I just had to get better at my writing. I really appreciated someone like her as my professor, who took the time to make me aware of the challenge and being truthful. Dr. Clifford did not sugar-coat anything. She was preparing me for the real world. I needed to hear that honesty. She told me she would support me in any way possible, and to take advantage of the writing center. I took her advice, went to the writing center to get help with my writing papers. The center showed me how to catch grammatical errors and the proper way to format paragraphs. After learning so much from the writing center, I noticed right away that my term papers were starting to improve, and I was getting really good grades on them. Dr. Clifford noticed the changes in the papers and said my writing had improved dramatically. She was very happy and proud. This was all because of her guidance and push that I was able to be self-aware, and learned how to advocate for myself. I truly appreciated her. I never knew the importance of having excellent writing skills, how they would be able to take you so far in life. It is all because of that conversation with Dr. Clifford.
When I finally graduated from college and went on to graduate school, it was there I encountered the directors of my program, Dr. Bridal Pearson, Dr. John Hudgins and Dr. Devin Walker. They taught me to follow my passion and calling in life, learning what it means to be a true effective leader, and leading by integrity. Then later while still finishing graduate school I connected with Eric Waldo, Executive Director of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative, who also became another phenomenal mentor of mine with his push, encouragement, and life lessons on me continuing to be a better leader.
I’m here to say that all of these amazing people in my life have shaped me into the man I am today. What I have learned from them is to never let adversity beat you down, but that you rise above, get through, and succeed. It also taught me that I am a strong, will-minded person that can achieve anything, and make it to the top, where I have made it and continue making it. Lastly these lessons shows me that I’m a winner NOT a quitter.
Verlando Brown is a program coordinator at Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute. He is a first-generation college graduate and advocate for other first-generation students. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @BrownVerlando.