Fernando Tovar ‘19
The pressure of my uncertainty reached its apex on May 1st, 2015. I was on a 28-hour bus ride with my Army JROTC drill team to Daytona Beach, Florida and I had to decide on which college I would attend. All I had on my mind was finishing my last year, making that last big impact on my high school, and the 800 student program I was in charge of in Waukegan, IL.
Born in Ixtapan De La Sal, Mexico, Mexico, I never really dreamed about going to college but just a year before this I was finally able to get my U.S. residency to be able to apply for the FAFSA. Since the age of four when my mom brought me to the states, I began to overcome obstacles. Just like all Denisonians have. My mother had to work late night shifts at a popcorn factory while I struggled in learning English. I was in bilingual ESL classes set to fail due to my lack of motivation and resources until my stepfather came into the picture. Since I was around 8 I began to change the way I viewed my academics.
Leaping forward to 2015, my teammates and I were at a rest stop in a Panera in Georgia. Decision day was that day as I continued to haggle with financial aid offices from two liberal arts colleges. As I made my final decision, I called my parents to seek final approval. I had no idea of what to really expect going to college as a first generation student. But why? Well, I only had one month left in high school with a great resume, a high GPA, and standardized test scores. I felt ready for the challenges that approached me, but truth be told, I wasn’t. I constantly remind myself of the sacrifices my mother has made for me, with only $200 coming into this country, with half of it used to buy greyhound bus tickets to Chicago. I have always had that pressure to do what’s best for myself and my family. As I finished my high school career, I pursued my postsecondary education. Something not very common in Waukegan High School. In fact, only about 30% of my class of 980 students even applied to colleges. With my vision to someday come back and help my home of Waukegan, IL grow and prosper, my close group of friends is planning to do just that. But how? Well that’s for time to tell, and just like a lot of things in life it all starts with a goal and passion.
As my summer came to a fold, I remember the drive to the little town of Granville being a long one. Being from the northern Chicagoland area I knew to expect a wide range of weather along with the Midwest plains throughout the drive. I was excited, nervous, and anxious of what I had to expect going into Denison. I remember Google Maps taking us up the road passing through Swasey and A quad for the first time. I was extremely nervous. My parents were happy for me, and my younger siblings who were barely entering middle school were looking up to me, because they would follow in my footsteps in going to college. The pressure of being a first-gen set in as upperclassmen began to help my family and I unpack all of my stuff from their car. I glanced around, very few looked like me. It felt like they were staring at my family and me. This was something I never really encountered in my public high school. Soon after, my parents wished me the best of luck and and my mom cried of joy as they started to take off.
My first few weeks at Denison were rough. The food was different, the people were different, and the community made me uneasy. I thought that taking four college courses wouldn’t be too bad considering I took more in high school and got good grades. I was wrong. I fell behind within a month in my classes. I remember trying to study nearly twice as much as the peers around me, but I wouldn’t get the grades they got or the grade I wanted. I became constantly frustrated with myself. My mind would race before taking chemistry and math exams: “I’m not got enough to be in this preppy school” or “If only I had gone to a private school like most of these kids did.” Mentally I was drained after spending long nights trying to cram material into my head and trying to find other study methods. I had never had to ask people for help before. After finishing my first semester I did better than I thought I would but I needed to become attentive and open about my needs.
I was already involved in a lot of great organizations like La Fuerza Latina, the volleyball club, and the Hunger and Homelessness club. I really wanted to surround myself around a community where I felt welcome and at home, not just around people interested in the same thing as I was. However, these clubs let me express myself and become involved and dedicated like I was in high school. As I began thinking of what I was going to do next at Denison I didn’t know what being “too involved” really meant. My spring semester of my freshman year I started taking two science classes and two GE courses that interested me.
I became more overwhelmed than ever. I thought that because I went to LeaderShape a week before the semester began, and the other bits of reflection I had the opportunity to have would really help me prepare for the semester. This was where I went wrong. Early in the semester I was doing much better in preparing for my science exams while truly finding passion for the curriculum in all of my classes. I enjoyed the readings, the essays, and the studying. But it was this semester where I also began to find a new “home.” I was being pursued to rush a few fraternities around campus. I remember telling myself just a few months before that I would never join a fraternity. But when I started getting to know a lot of the guys in Lambda Chi Alpha and Beta Theta Pi, I enjoyed their similarities and differences. There was a bit of diversity not only in race, but majors, interests, and their ways of thinking. I was very surprised but interested in pursuing one as I went to a few more events in and off campus such as bowling, going to the movies, eating at Taste of India, and so forth. Bid day came around and that’s where I had made my decision. Due to the support system my brothers gave me, I found a new band of brothers in ΛΧΑ.
As the semester progressed I continued to rush the fraternity Lambda Chi Alpha I began pursuing other interests around campus as well. I felt invincible and confident, I could do anything. I even applied to become a Resident Assistant for my sophomore year at Denison. I remember getting the email late January as I got a position to be a residential assistant for the second floor of Shorney. I felt like everything was setting itself in place. But just six months later, right before I began my sophomore year my position was rescinded due to my inefficiency of my study methods in my science courses. Disappointment and frustration flooded my thoughts again. Regardless of the failures we face in life, we cannot simply give up because of a setback.
In the words of Henry Ford, “Failure is the opportunity to begin again, only more intelligently.” We have to admit our failures and mistakes in life. I came into Denison with insufficient preparation to tackle the sciences I have always wanted to pursue. My biggest flaw in all this was how I wasn’t confident enough to reach out to professors when I needed guidance my freshmen year. Great tips that I’ve learned from peers around me is to redo your notes one to three days after you’ve learned new material. Making flashcards. Study as you’re going to bed. Do what works best for you! Make that transition as efficient as possible. Things are not as easy as they were in high school, and you have to be prepared to change as your surroundings do. I have adapted and truly found my own tactics along the way, but we must have the will to take action sooner rather than later!
A strong setback for me early on was that I didn’t ask for help due to my ego. This is something I urge you to never do, regardless of how difficult it may seem at first. Always seek help early on. At the time only my two roommates and maybe a few other friends on campus were who I consistently shared my thoughts and problems back at home and on campus. I felt scared of approaching my professors as I began to fall behind on some of the curriculum because I couldn’t process it as well as others. As time went on I began to improve my study methods that I learned from a lot of my brothers in my fraternity and friends in my courses. Practice humility, no one ever really knows what they’re doing.
In the spring semester of my first year, one of the best thing that happened to me was finding my support system in my brothers of Lambda Chi Alpha, and the LeaderShape program. I had already done this values-based program a year before, but this time I would go in a student coordinator. The amount of self-realization and reflection that I had the opportunity to have going into my second semester was a whole new experience for me. Why? Because here at Denison we are in a community where we are constantly running on the clock to turn in an assignment, to go work, attend meetings, eat, sleep, but with little to no reflection time ever.
So what did this program do for me? The program allowed me to reflect on a lot of mistakes my freshmen year but it allowed me to be more efficient, living day to day. I had the great opportunity of going back to LeaderShape again this year, but as one of the two on-site coordinators of the program. Being back at the week long program allowed me to reflect on the vision I created over a year ago, and has allowed me to see the visible growth I have had since a year ago sitting in the chairs many of my peers were in this year. One of the largest lessons I have learned is that it is okay to ask for help. So ask for help, and don’t allow it to pass another day. The longer you wait, the faster that due date for that big essay approaches, or that test comes rolling around. Whether it is your professor, a classmate, a friend, or even a tutor. Everyone here at Denison is here to serve one another, you just have to take the necessary steps to step out of your comfort zone!
One of the best pieces of advice anyone can offer a first generation student is the effectiveness that mentorship can offer. I’ve had the privilege of having great mentors in high school, and now even Denison Alumni who see potential in me. Whether it was through the college application process, or through scholarships, mentors of mine have always served me well and it is something I enjoy being for younger students and my siblings. Believe me, it is something you won’t regret. Your mentor could range from your high school counselor, a professor at Denison, or even someone in administration here at Denison. They are all here for us, so try and reach out to that one professor whose lectures never seem long enough for your intellectual growth, or that person in administration who you can connect with so well. It is something that I never regret, because it is something that can turn into a long-term friendship even after your time here at Denison.
I want you to always remind yourself of all the obstacles you have already pushed through in life. Being a first gen student is something to be extremely proud of. It’s an honor to be a first-gen, not something something to frown upon. For us the pressure will always be there, but we all know that our roots back home is what helped us get to this prestigious liberal-arts college. That’s why to me, networking is something vital to do at Denison. My high school senior year mentor is actually a Denison Alumnus. He and I email each other every month to check up on each other, and he serves as a huge inspiration to me. I try and connect people all of the time with the resources that would best fit their plans around campus, and it’s something that can go a long way. So push yourself to make that leap out of your comfort zone sometimes and get to know your professors, your advisor, and the administration here on campus. They are all here for us we learn from them while they learn a lot from us as well.
Make this experience worthwhile. Every day here is a privilege. Not everyone gets the experiences we have and no one will ever have the same memories similar to the ones you will mold here at Denison. Yes, I am just a sophomore but those restless nights, long hours of studying, and the amount of times I’ve told myself “I wish I had my career already” are just learning lessons for me. Like I’ve said before cherish every moment and do constant reflection while you’re here on the Hill. You will continue to grow and learn every day, while doing so make all of those mistakes into positive lessons. It is okay to not have all of the answers right away. No one ever has all of the answers. That’s why it’s up to us to do our best to learn from others around us, use your resources around you, and self-reflect every now and then. We are the product of the public school system, but this will only strengthen the experiences that you will have here at Denison. Remember your roots and find that balance in your everyday life on the hill. Make it an effort to stay ambitious and humble. Conquer your experiences here and make your mark one day at a time!
“Believe in yourself and all that you are. Know that there is something inside you that is greater than any obstacle.”
-Christian D. Larson