The Unconquered Scholars Program at Florida State University has been a tremendous blessing in my life. I’ve been around since the program’s inception five years ago, and I’ve witnessed the program’s tremendous growth and impact it has had on its students and the community. To use a football metaphor, every individual must maximize his or her “yards after contact.”
Life has its struggles and hurts, but I’ve learned along the way that even in the pain of life, there are yards to be gained. Our interpretations of events and our responses to them become the ideas that define us.
As I’ve matured, I’ve learned that we all face unique challenges and hardships. We are all on our own in this world, but the thing that most connects us is our stories and experiences. We can all admit that you don’t begin to come into the full knowledge of what you’re made of until you’ve had some encounters that leave you with no other choice but to be strong.
Each one of us can look at ourselves as players on the football field of life. Yards after contact are the yards a player gains after the player is initially hit. When I think of a running back, I think of the focus he must possess in order to gain yards after being hit by defensive players. I think of his relentless drive in spite of all the hits he takes. The running back is always running with aim; he is running to secure a first down that will ultimately lead him and his team to scoring a touchdown. Gaining that first down may seem like an insignificant accomplishment, but it is a small victory that contributes toward the ultimate goal of winning the game.
The ball is our purpose. The ball is our future. The ball is what Unconquered Scholars have held onto for so long. Some of my program peers were in foster care, others were wards of the state, or homeless. As for myself, I was in relative care. In the program, there are plenty of situations in which defeat was calling – challenges that were trying to snatch the ball out of our hands. Each Unconquered student has played the role of a running back. We’ve taken some hard hits; we’ve even had to stiff-arm some pretty scary situations. If we had stopped running, then we would have lost possession. We had to run with stamina and power because our future depended on it.
When I reflect on my own story, I think of my initial hit when my mother passed away unexpectedly, so I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. I was just a freshman in high school. I had to be my own parent and take care of myself in all respects. One day when I was at school, I intentionally avoided my peers so that they wouldn’t see me crying. I felt myself breaking down inside. I raised my hand so that I could be excused. I felt alone; I felt as if no one understood the pain I was dealing with. I started to cry uncontrollably – the kind of tears that only come from the worst pain deep within. But in that very moment, I heard in my spirit a voice reassuring me that in a little while, things would get better.
Then I realized, life is about the small victories, that is, the yards you gain when you are experiencing adversity. I, for one, am so glad that I kept running. I’m so glad I had the courage to stiff-arm my hardships and to see beyond the obstacles. Through my mother’s death, I learned the importance of perseverance and what “yards after contact” really means. I advanced the ball because, unbeknownst to me, the opportunity to attend Florida State University would be only a few yards down the field. These extraordinary students shared in this video where they started on the field and where they are now because of Unconquered and the Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement (C.A.R.E.).
Thank goodness all the other students in the program also advanced the ball so that Unconquered could open up a wide hole for us to run through. A hole was made by this program that allowed us to gain those tough yards. We kept on running with our future in mind and our purpose in our hands. Unconquered has been an invaluable support system for each of us. Without such a resource, our lives would in all likelihood have taken a drastically and tragically, different turn. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Unconquered Scholars Program, the C.A.R.E. Program, and our beloved Florida State.
I realized three years ago that attending college was going to be one of the most significant life transitions I would ever undergo. I knew the weight I would have to bear as a first-generation college student and as a student who had been in relative care. I did not know how I was going to pay for college, let alone what to expect once I arrived. Today, I look back at my initial hit. Today I look at where I started on the field. Today, I look at the yardage that has been gained by each and every student in this program. We’re not just running for ourselves; we are running for the future generation of students who will come after us.
In our lives, there were plenty of situations in which DEFEAT was once calling, CHALLENEGES that were trying to impede our date with destiny. But it took only ONE opportunity, ONE door opening, ONE yard- the Unconquered Scholars Program – to demonstrate what is possible when students are handed the right tools to go into battle against what seem like insurmountable circumstances.
In Unconquered, there are students who have not only dreamed, but have fought the good fight as well. Students who have had to ride through dark clouds, at times, unable to see the road ahead. I am talking about students who have managed to gain yards after contact in spite of life’s constant blows. I hope you can see and feel just how much strength, determination, capability, and resilience abound in this program.
For more information on the Unconquered Scholars Program, visit http://care.fsu.edu/USP or contact Lisa Jackson, Assistant Director of the Unconquered Scholars Program at FSU’s Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 644-0120.
Brittany Gardener graduated from Florida State University in 2016 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Marketing and currently serves in DCF’s Office of Civil Rights.