James Pena

James PenaCurrent Position: Hall Director, Schoenfeldt Hall

Alma Mater: George Fox University

Major/Undergraduate field of study: Biology

What was it like being among the first in your family to go to college?

I felt both excited and completely in over my head. I was excited to be doing what both my parents and I had dreamed of for so long. At the time, I had not even thought much past what I would do after college, but I knew I was going to college. It was finally happening. I was not only leaving as among the first in my family to go to college, but I was also leaving my little home on the island of Kaua’i for the “mainland.” I was excited for all the new experiences that awaited. At the same time, I felt nervous and scared. If I had any questions, I could not ask my parents; they would not have known the answers. I had to make new friends, and I had no idea if I would fit in. I had the majority of my tuition funded through federal loans, scholarships and financial aid, but I still had a small amount that I needed to figure out how to pay for. I had many questions and thoughts running through my mind. It felt overwhelming to consider all at once, so it helped me to take everything day by day, one-step at a time. Secondly, I devoted time and attention to establishing new friendships. When college proved to be more challenging than I thought, I had people I knew I could count on.

Are there any unique challenges you faced as a First Generation student?

Figuring out how I would pay for college was certainly one of the more challenging aspects. I had always known my parents would not be able to help put me through college. However, I was fortunate enough to have much of my tuition funded through scholarships, federal loans, and financial aid. I funded the remainder through summer jobs, work-study, and later, by working in Residence Life. Additionally, I kept looking for scholarships. I think what helped was a little faith in myself and paying careful attention to what opportunities were out there.

Do you have any advice for FGEN students at UP that are facing challenges?

You are not alone and it is okay to ask for help. Often, I made the mistake of thinking I had to do everything on my own. This made many things harder than they needed to be, and I missed the opportunity to meet some great people that would have wanted to support me. It can feel intimidating to ask for help, but trust me when I say, the people at UP care. Find a mentor, they have a lot to give. Talk to a financial aid counselor, the people at the Health and Counseling Center and Shepard Academic Resource Center, your professors, and of course, your Hall Director.

Did a mentor play a role in your experience?  How so?

 At the time, having a mentor and the importance of mentors never crossed my mind. I found myself caught in the trap of thinking I had to and could do everything on my own. I felt comfortable talking to several staff and faculty members on campus, but because I never realized the importance of a mentor, I never invested time into any of those relationships. I cannot recommend finding a mentor highly enough. So much wisdom, experience, and support to be shared from people like these!

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