Meet the Scholars

First-gen college journeys: How Uyen transformed herself into an influential peer mentor

I’ve been asked countless times how our lean Dell Scholars staff has effectively supported nearly 2,150 scholars over 600 institutions since 2004.  The answer: We empower students to help themselves and each other.

All of our Dell Scholars are encouraged to be independent and seek help when they need it.  Yet, some – especially first-generation students—have trouble identifying the warning signs that trouble might be lurking ahead.  Others might be afraid to ask for help.  So we invest a lot of time an energy teaching incoming freshmen how to form relationships they need to advocate for themselves and helping them develop skills to help them self-manage while at college.  We also leverage a peer group of Dell Scholar Ambassadors to help identify students who need assistance and support the scholars through graduation.

Our Ambassadors serve as mentors who connect with and relate to scholars. We’ve found that the relationships are beneficial for both Ambassadors and new Dell Scholars. New scholars feel comfortable talking to peers about personal situations and course work. Ambassadors feel their own experiences, while often difficult, are being used to the benefit of others.

Uyen’s personal story is one that many other first-generation students can relate to. As a Dell Scholar Ambassador, Uyen helps her peers navigate the challenges of college life.  Here she shares details of her own transformation that began by simply admitting she needed a little help from friends.

Uyen’s Story

College can be a lonely place.  Moving away from my family was intimidating, and when you’re shy like I am, it’s hard to penetrate new, safe circles of friends. However, one thing on a college campus is certain: connections matter.

I learned the hard way that being a loner would not help me achieve my goals. I studied just as hard as my peers, but they made better grades. Why? Because they were sharing notes, supporting one another and learning together. Connection doesn’t always come naturally to me, but I’ve learned how important it is. My chemistry conference class had 20 people in it. The conference was designed to supplement a 300-person lecture, and to help students connect and help each other. Everyone in class formed study groups, but I struggled to become part of a group. Instead, I worked independently and only relied on myself. If I could do it over again, I would’ve kept trying until I eventually found a group that I was comfortable with.

[quote]As a first-generation college student, you don’t have to do it alone.[/quote]

My grandmother had emergency neurosurgery one week before the end of winter break, and was hospitalized all semester. My father had died less than two years prior, so the thought of losing another loved one was overwhelming. I was homesick and hadn’t yet created a strong support system at school. I was starting to feel like I didn’t belong at college. As a result, I stopped going to classes, and struggled through assignments and exams. My grades started to suffer, I lost a scholarship and did not qualify for the pre-medical programs and honor societies I was looking forward to applying to.

That was my low point and I started to question if I would be able to make it through college.  I felt alone and knew I had to make a change if I was going to be a successful college student. Around that time, a friend of mine who was a Dell Scholars Ambassador encouraged me to apply to the program. While I was initially hesitant to apply, I ended up sending in the application and taking my chances.

Becoming a Dell Scholars Ambassador

Shortly thereafter, I received a call from a Dell Scholars program officer that I had been accepted as an Ambassador and things started looking up.  Not only did this opportunity allow me to help other students, it also allowed me to open up about some of my own struggles and began to connect me with resources to help me get back on track. As a result, I started to meet new people and expand my inner circle. Not only did my grades improve but I also found my own voice and learned to be more outspoken.  And, in my new role as an Ambassador, I began to connect with other students to share my story and provide advice as they struggle with some familiar issues.

My big takeaway? [tweetable]As a first-generation college student, you don’t have to do it alone.[/tweetable] I initially found my support through the Dell Scholars Program, but joining clubs or even study groups can help you make connections with people at school.  There is help out there- you just have to find the courage to ask for it.

I know that my fellow Dell Scholars can relate to my experience and learn from it.  Meanwhile, in my role as a Dell Scholars Ambassador, those same peers fill me with a sense of belonging and value. Helping others has helped me.

Uyen is a current Dell Scholar Ambassador raised in Houston, TX.  She’s majoring in human biology and history at the University of Texas at Austin.  She became an ambassador to share her experiences and knowledge with other students and help them pave a smoother path for their academic career.

Current Dell Scholar Ambassadors were asked to share their own experience in a blog series addressing key factors in helping first-generation students transition to college life and stay on track to graduation.