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Path to the Future is No Longer Lonely

by Justin Jefferson
Austin American-Statesman
June 19, 2008

Waking up to gunshots in the middle of the night and watching my neighbors go to jail for dealing drugs was just another day in the San Antonio public housing projects.

Growing up, my family didn't have many economic resources, but my parents provided me with the essentials of food, shelter and, most importantly, ethics and morals.

My parents both worked laborious jobs. My mother was a laundromat attendant; my father cut grass and washed windows. They referred to themselves as mules, believing that once their bodies were worn from hard labor they would be out of work. My parents wanted better for me --for my hard work not to be in vain. When I greeted my exhausted parents after a long day, their words sunk in a little more.

Throughout elementary and middle school, my favorite subject was science; I dreamed of being a doctor or a scientist. I did well in school, participated in science fairs and looked forward to class every day. School was my escape from the slums where I lived. I felt I could accomplish anything despite the odds.

While my friends argued at recess about whom was the toughest Transformer and who would throw a rock to break a window of the local crack house, my mind was busy with thoughts of electrons, anatomy and ionic compounds. Studying science and medicine was a dream so far away from me, like a distant planet I could discover only by leaving home.

I enrolled at the University of Texas as a human biology major on the pre-medical track. I was the first person in my family to attend college. My classes were large and intimidating. I felt insignificant on a huge campus.

I had no one to ask for advice. I was intimidated. Without contacts, connections and resources, I was a step behind my peers.

With the help of an advisor, I enrolled in the Pre-Graduate School Internship, an initiative of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium, founded and led by Richard Cherwitz in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. The internship -- which, since its inception in 2003, has enrolled more than 300 students in nearly every academic discipline -- provides undergraduates with an opportunity to explore their academic and professional passions. Almost fifty percent are underrepresented minority or first-generation students.

A key component of the internship is discovering how graduate education can help one make meaningful contributions to society. Undergraduates work closely with a graduate student or faculty supervisor to explore their chosen field of study as well as the implications their work can have for their communities.

Deena Walker, a graduate student in neuroscience, was my mentor. From her, I learned various lab techniques and discussed the life of a graduate student. She was a great role model; in addition to helping me acquire the skills of working in a laboratory environment, she was a friend to whom I could turn for advice. I also established social networks with other undergraduates, graduate students and professors.

At the end of the semester-long internship, Andrea Gore, the professor in charge of the lab, allowed me to officially join the program. Ruby Morúa Olmanson, associate director of the internship program, was another role model.

Now I see a multitude of options for my education. I have experienced adversity on my way to success and happiness. It shaped me into the person I am today. I will always be the boy from San Antonio's projects who followed his heart and dreams.

Justin Jefferson of San Antonio is a sophomore studying human biology at the University of Texas at Austin.