Reina Olivas: My experience as both mentor and mentee

This is part of a blog series written by current Dell Scholars Program Ambassador, Reina Olivas. Reina discusses her experiences as a first-generation college student and describes what it’s like for her to both give and receive help. Read the entire series here.

My name is Reina Olivas, a Houston native, and I am a third-year journalism student at The University of Texas at Austin (UT). I am a 2013 Dell Scholar, as well as a Dell Scholars Program Ambassador. Through my experiences at college, I have learned firsthand what it means to be on both ends of the spectrum of giving and receiving support. I began as an intimidated first-generation college student, and now, almost three years later, I am in the position of passing on my valuable knowledge to other first-generation college students.

In this blog series, I will talk about my experiences in both asking for and receiving help in many different situations that I faced over my three years in college.

Being a mentee

I was a straight A student in high school, applied to as many scholarships as I possibly could and was very involved in extra-curricular activities. I knew I had to work extremely hard to be able to attend college, an idea that was both motivating and intimidating.

Similar to many other first-generation students, I had to help my mother pay the bills while in high school. This meant that I had to find a way to balance a job, school work, extra-curricular activities, homework and chores around the house. It was straining at times but paid off when I was offered automatic acceptance to UT. I was off to begin my college career in Austin.

College was a completely different ball game from high school. I quickly learned that my study habits had to improve, and that tutoring and office hours would make a big difference in my grades. I was managing well my first semester until I learned my father had been incarcerated in Houston. Although my parents had been separated for a few years, learning that my father was going to jail took a toll on me.

Coping from this far away from home made me feel homesick and distracted from my studies. Midterms were coming up, so I sat in my dorm room one night and laid out my options:

  1. I could let this consume me, allow my grades to suffer and let all my hard work in high school be for nothing.
  2. I could seek help, reach out to resources on campus and at the Dell Scholars Program and push through my first semester in college.

I chose the latter. I met with a counselor as well as a mentor, and vented about my situation. They gave me tips and advice, and reassured me that I wasn’t alone. I immediately felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

I quickly learned that leaving for college didn’t mean that all my family problems were going to suddenly disappear, but rather it was going to be a challenge for me to deal with them from a distance. However, I reminded myself continuously that I had moved to Austin with a main goal: receive my college education and earn my degree. I had to keep that goal in sight, and continue to take advantage of the resources available to me. I didn’t finish my first semester with straight A’s, but I finished it with a sense of accomplishment, and valuable lessons learned.

I have learned the importance of passing on the knowledge and guidance that I have gained to other incoming students.

Being a mentor

Fast forward three years to present day, and I am now a Dell Scholars Program Ambassador, and very close to graduating with my degree. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but I have learned the importance of passing on the knowledge and guidance that I have gained to other incoming students. Whether it be my cousins, my brothers, my friends from high school, college classmates or other Dell Scholars, it’s not only my job as an Ambassador, but something I find very rewarding. I was once the scared, shy, intimated student not knowing where to even begin asking for help. I believe it’s important as first generation students to help one another, and continue to inspire and help others on their journey to a better future.

The path forward

I am still learning as a mentee which can sometimes feel harder than my role as a mentor.  It’s hard to ask for help – to know when to do it and how to do it – but it is also what saved me from dropping out of college when the going got tough. As a mentor, it’s incredibly rewarding to share what I now know. And knowing that I’m having a positive impact on a fellow peer or student makes all of my hardships worth it.