FISH OUT OF WATER: The Reality of Transitioning into College

Thao PhamBy Thao-Nguyen Pham ’18 |FOCUS, FOCUS Pre-Med Scholar, Ignite Mentor, FOCUS Community Leader| Zoology Major | College of Science

First generation college students are defined as the first in their family to receive a bachelor’s degree or have parents who never completed their bachelor’s degree. Most first-gen students therefore have a perception of college from social media, Hollywood movies and their peers. These sources depict college as a mixture of cliques, drama, individual freedom, and notoriously Greek life. This perception of college is far from reality.  For starters, at Texas A&M University only ten percent of students report they participate in Greek life. This is a small population of students at Texas A&M and at other universities, yet it is the predominate group that is represented in movies and TV shows. The realities of student life contrast what is depicted in entertainment and online. The lack of honest content about student life when I was in high school was jarring to me.

As a student at Texas A&M I have gradually learned to become more proactive with the causes I care about. I decided to write a book with experiences from current students and information regarding what they wished they knew their freshman year will help guide incoming freshmen students and ease the worries of their family. The mentors and advisors I had freshmen year helped guide me through the maze of confusion and I wanted to do the same for the incoming class. The most important advice I received is that every student transitions into college differently, therefore there are multiple solutions to every issue. I took all the advice and experiences from everyone else and then decided what was the best way to solve my own problems. From the experiences of my peers, advisors, and my own, I think my book will tackle some of the most common issues that freshmen college students will have their first year. By all means it is not inclusive of everything since everyone faces different obstacles during their transition into college. Not everyone at Texas A&M has a mentor therefore if this book helps even one more student, I am willing to share my lot of embarrassing, ridiculous and avoidable mistakes as well as the hard-earned successes.

As a first-gen college student myself, I can agree that the perception of college I had as a high school student was influenced by social media and Hollywood. Even the experiences my high school and college friends told me about was not an accurate depiction of my own experiences from my first semester at A&M. Some statements they made included: “College is easier than high school. People don’t really study, maybe the nerds.” In addition to asking my friends, I even tried to read books regarding what to expect in college and specifically googling the individual colleges I applied to.

If anything, I was frightened by the fact that I, an introvert, would be attending college in a different city, with 60,000 students, and none of my close friends or anyone in my high school could tell me what to expect. I was afraid that I would be lost without anyone and my family would prove me wrong in that the better college for me was the community college ten minutes away from my house.  I think without participating in a freshman learning community and attending fish camp I would not have quickly connected with current Aggies and gained insight of their experiences. Of course, even after attending fish camp I still had a tough time transitioning into the college life.

Overall, college campuses have gotten better in terms of reporting statistics, however some topics such as mental health often go unreported. My goal with this book is to provide a more accurate source of student life – to show naive high school seniors that it is more than what is depicted in the media or on the internet. I want to encourage freshmen to seek help and to also learn about the unspoken reality at Texas A&M. I think if there was more information regarding student life at Texas A&M – the ugly and the amazing things – high school students will have a more accurate perception of college. Freshmen students should feel that it is perfectly normal to have the problems they face while transitioning into college.


If you would like to learn more about programs for first-generation college students at Texas A&M, please visit the LAUNCH website. There are additional programs beyond those offered by LAUNCH. Scholarships that serve first-generation students specifically are awarded by Texas A&M University’s Scholarships and Financial Aid office.


Denesha Horn: How FOCUS Helped Me Fulfill My Dream of Traveling Abroad


Former Student Denesha Horn ’16 earned her bachelor’s degree in Anthropology with a minor in Chinese from the College of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University. Denesha began her travels as part of  FOCUS Learning Community and continued her adventures in China with a study abroad and then service with the Peace Corps.

As told to Carolina Pereira ’17 | LAUNCH Art & Creative Vision Program Aide| 

Denesha Horn ’16, always knew she wanted to travel abroad, however, due to the financial commitment that it entails, she was not sure she would ever be able to. Through exploring the opportunities and possibilities available on the Texas A&M Study Abroad website, she found FOCUS.

FOCUS, or Foundations of Continued Undergraduate Success, is a learning community that allows first-year students to discover more about themselves while building a foundation for a successful undergraduate experience. Through professional staff guidance, monthly activities, peer mentoring experiences, and specialized academic support services, students build a collaborative community dedicated to enhancing their first-year experience at Texas A&M University.

Horn was the first person to show up to the FOCUS informational, where she found out about their upcoming London Spring Break trip. Horn was also the first person to turn in her application to the trip, and she had ordered her passport even before knowing whether or not she would be selected to go. This eagerness to explore somewhere new proved to be a blessing in disguise, because for the first time ever, the number of applicants for the trip grew exponentially and a wait-list had to be created. Had Horn not applied when she did she would not have made the cut.

Horn traveled to London for Spring Break in 2013, and even though the cold weather was harsh, Horn says this trip was incredibly important to her; “I got to see a different country, a different culture, [and] different people. Even though England is [not] that different from the U.S., I still experienced a bit of culture shock.” This single experience forever changed Horn’s life, and her eagerness to explore had not diminished. In the summer before her junior year, she found herself on her next adventure: China. Horn was required to learn a foreign language as an Anthropology major, and she chose Mandarin, which is what spiked her interest in the Chinese culture.

During the 6-week study abroad program, Horn volunteered with the Peace Corps, and found herself in uncharted waters; “China is very different from America, so the culture shock and realization of not being in America was even more evident. There was a much longer adjustment period,” said Horn. However, these obstacles did not stop her from going back. After her graduation from Texas A&M with a Bachelors of Arts focused in cultural and societal Anthropology and Chinese, Horn returned to live in China for two years and continued her service with the Peace Corps. Although China may have been familiar, the challenges Horn encountered once she returned were not; “[living in China] had a layer of difficulty and challenges that the 6-week study abroad didn’t. I was in a rural 3rd tier city (Tianshui, Gansu Province) that was even smaller than the one I studied in. The people were poorer, less educated, and more conservative.”

Horn hopes to return to China again in order to revisit locations and friends, as well as to continue exploring the country, its culture and its people.

“Travel, no matter how long or short the distance, can bring the world together” – Denesha Horn


An Intern’s Guide to Washington, D.C.

Joshua Lewis PPIP

Joshua Lewis (right) with President Tallant of TAMU Kingsville, who Joshua prepared for his congressional testimony as part of his internship.


Following his graduation in May of 2017, Joshua Lewis began his internship in Washington, D.C. with the Public Policy Internship Program (PPIP). This program provides students with real-world experience and hands-on learning through policy-related internships in Washington, D.C.; Austin, TX; and various European locations.  PPIP internships complement and reinforce students’ coursework, give students inside knowledge about their professional future, and provide hosting organizations with additional support. PPIP is coordinated from the office of the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Studies.  This allows the program to be coordinated centrally through the colleges to provide an integrated academic and policy-related internship program for the campus and community. (From

Prior to graduation, Joshua was a Posse Scholar. The Posse Scholars Program provides students chosen by the Posse Foundation for exceptional leadership skills with intensive faculty mentoring and small group interactions.  Advantages of the program include a tightly knit national network of Posse graduates, tailored career and academic advising, and opportunities for individual and community development.  Posse Scholars are expected to become leaders on campus and in the community.

By Joshua Lewis ’17 | Posse Scholar | Public Policy Intern with Georgia Representative John Lewis | Philosophy |College of Liberal Arts

Washington DC has no sympathy for interns who mismanage their time, social capital, or financial resources. The DC area can grow to be stern and distant if one happens to adhere to one too many faux pas. The following are simple tips that have helped and will continue to help me experience the DC area.

Uber Everywhere
Well sort of. If you do not have Uber or Lyft, you need to make a lifestyle change. Most places that are must see areas of DC are hard to get to by metro rail lines alone. When traveling in groups this is typically the preferred means of transportation, but be careful. Always split the fare. Splitting fares with your friends will be the easiest way for you to ensure affordable travel and not lose new found friendship over a $36 Uber XL ride. If you can either walk or use the Metro Rail system, do so and thank your wallet will thank you later. Anything under a mile away should not be an excuse for a ride share.

Is your lunch more than your hourly pay? 
It is easy to find great eats in DC. The not so pretty downside to this is that if you are interning, you most likely will not be paid, although there are some who will be the exceptions. For those who are paid interns it is never really a great idea to consistently have lunch and dinner if it is twice or three times more than what you bring in on an hourly rate. Be modest and plan when you will eat out to save your funds. If you happen to have an unpaid internship, budget for groceries and meal prep as often as possible. Plan to eat out within the constraints of your budget and you will be fine.

Groceries get delivered to your door step. 
So you don’t have a car, no problem. Most stores have a food delivery service. Giant, for example, uses what is called “Peapod” to deliver groceries to its customers. There are other services, like Fresh Direct, that offer $50 dollars off grocery purchase if using promotion codes. The downside to online shopping is that you miss out on sales and deals offered at local grocery stores. If you have the fortitude and weather conditions permit try walking or taking the bus to the grocery stores near your residency.

Print more business cards. 
The amount of business cards that you start with will not be enough! You will have to eventually either have more printed or order your own. The one thing that you never want to do while in DC is try to network with no business cards. It makes it harder for you to make your impression and for the one you are trying to connect with to communicate with you.

Don’t lose yourself. 
The hype of the DC area is sometimes overwhelming. Sometimes this means that people lose who they are when surrounded by new people and ideas from every part of the conservative / liberal spectrum. In the flurry of new sensations stay convicted to the goals and objectives you set forth at the beginning of your internship. You will thank yourself later

Would I do it again? 
I would absolutely do it again. The exposure to policy is helping me figure out what I want to do for my graduate studies. If I had not taken the time to pursue PPIP I question whether or not I would have found my concerns on health and social policies today. DC is the heart of policy for the country and regardless of one’s interests they can find something to connect with here in DC.


Joshua Lewis ’17, BA Philosophy

Joshua is staying on a second semester to continue his internship.

A “Surreal Spring Break”


FOCUS Learning Community travelers with their London Walks‘ guide after completing the Harry Potter tour (near Millennium Bridge in the photo).

During Spring Break 2017, 38 students traveled to London for a week exploring the culture, the impact of traveling, and identity. The week included multiple walking tours from London Walks, a day trip to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and Bath, and forays into the National Gallery, British Museum, Tate Modern, and Cabinet War Rooms among other activities. Find out what some of the travelers learned along the way.

By India “Ingrid” Alexander ’19 | FOCUS Community Leader | Ignite Peer Mentor |Performance Studies Major | College of Liberal Arts

As someone who had never traveled farther than central Texas, I was extremely nervous to be leaving Texas, my family and other friends while going overseas. The farthest I’d ever gone was Galveston before London, so imagine my surprise when I found out I was one of the few applicants who was able to go to London. This post will be my experience mixed intermittently with the opinions and experiences of the other Aggies who traveled with me.

Day 1: March 9th

Looming travel bans and airline strikes accelerated our departure time from campus. We gathered at 8 am to board our bus to Houston to catch our flight that afternoon.


LAUNCH London Travelers Spring Break 2017 at departure


Tracks at Gloucester Road, our home station.

Day 2: March 10th


Sandra Bernal ’17 (one of the trip leaders as well as a Community Leader for Focus) had taken a picture of our first (and arguably hardest) first encounters: The tubes.

“I learned that conquering the simplest things can be the most difficult.”

Jasmine Arambula ’18, my roommate during the trip had an amazing picture to iterate what she experienced on our second day of the trip, she said:

 “On March 10th, we went to Piccadilly Circus and walked around the area. I took this picture outside of a bookstore. It was the first United States related thing I had seen since traveling to London. I was shocked and taken aback when I saw the display because it made me realize just how other countries and its people view us. This experience was the beginning of when my view as a U.S. traveler began to change. In order to fully take in the culture of another country, I had to completely understand that the United States is not the “perfect country” that we make it out to be. Every country has its flaws and we can all learn from one another when it comes down to policy, politics, society, and so forth. This helped me broaden my view as a world traveler, and it helped me remain open minded throughout the trip and onward.”

Day 3: March 11th

Quan Huynh ’18, who tends be a man of a few words gave me two pictures to describe his day:

“A simple building on the side of a street can be the next Hogwarts in somebody’s outgoing novel.”


Our Aggies found a big “Gig’Em” on the 4th Plinth in Trafalgar Square.

Day 4: March 12th

Hayley Henry ’19, a past mentee, had her picture taken at the National Gallery (which was amazingly beautiful) and had this to say about this day of our trip,

 “The day we visited the British I gained a better sense of culture. There were so many artifacts from all over the world that were fascinating. That day I also visited Camden Market and discovered so many stores and food. I tried Dutch pancakes for the first time and it honestly changed by life. (This picture is from the National Gallery because I didn’t take a picture at the British Museum.)”

Day 5: March 13th

I didn’t have anyone offer up anything for this day, so this entry will be from yours truly. We went to Windsor Castle along with Stongehenge and the lovely city of Bath. As a clasical studies minor with a concentration in Roman studies,

The Roman Baths at Bath.

Bath was my favorite part. The beautiful architecture is so iconic of the Roman’s handiwork as engineers and also of how far their exploits really took them. My picture is the image of a well preserved Roman bathhouse. They believed that with the help of Sulis-Minerva the water of the bath house would cure all ailments.

Day 6: March 14th

Arianna Izaguirre ’19, one of the past mentees in our Learning community gave us this really beautiful insight on how she saw the nightlife in a different country.

“The London night atmosphere, like any place, is a different experience. There’s a different ambiance in the air in which one can detect excitement, laughter and a little bit of danger. No one is going to work. There’s no rush. People are heading off to dinner with friends and family, off to pubs for a few drinks, and then there’s me, an excited tourist soaking up as much of London as I can.

I quickly learned through my night experience of London that going out of my comfort zone is the way to grow. I was skeptical the entire time exploring a new place at night. I felt like I was going to be mugged, but I couldn’t let that fear and the want of being safe in my hotel keep me from experiencing the world. It’s okay to feel a little suspense every now and then and it’s okay to be afraid, but never let that hinder your sense of adventure. The Buckingham Palace had a whole different experience during the day and I’m glad I went. “


Everyone’s Here – Student Trip Leaders before departure: Wyatt Trinidad ’17, Hailey Duncan ’17, Sandra Bernal ’17, and Valerie Ortega ’18.

Day 7: March 15th
(last day in London)

The last day of the trip was extremely crazy (a few of us were late waking up) and my picture is not from the last day, but it is a reflection of how blessed I was to have been able to travel with such a great group of people to what felt like a whole new world.

Day 8: March 16th

Our return flight and bus back to campus consumed this entire day.

Ingrid Alexander ’19 originally published about the 2017 Spring Break International Immersion Experience for FOCUS Learning Community students on her own site at Surreal Spring Break.

A second group of 38 learning community students traveled the same week to Paris. Their stories will be shared in another post.

FOCUS Pre-Med Scholar receives Texas A&M Foundation Board of Trustees Outstanding Student Award

Brenda Castillo FA15

Graduating Senior and former FOCUS mentor and student Brenda Castillo ’17 received the Texas A&M Foundation Board of Trustees’ Outstanding Student Award. Brenda served as a mentor in the Huang Pre-Med Scholars community of FOCUS.

The Texas A&M Foundation Board of Trustees named Brenda Castillo and Joshua Sutton as recipients of its fifth Outstanding Student Award during a dinner on May 3 at the Sanders Corps of Cadets Center on the Texas A&M University campus. Both graduating seniors have excelled academically while distinguishing themselves as leaders at Texas A&M and in the community.

Former Foundation trustee Melbern Glasscock and his wife Susanne created the endowed award in 2012 to honor exceptional students at Texas A&M University. Besides succeeding academically and as leaders, these recipients have overcome significant personal or family financial challenges to attend Texas A&M. The Outstanding Student Award includes a cash prize of $2,500.

Read more about Brenda and this award

LAUNCH students reflect on their experience at SBSLC

Current University Scholar and University Honors Program Student Ecaroh Jackson ‘18 and FOCUS Learning Community participant Yurisa Garcia ’20 reflect on their attendance of the 29th Annual Southwestern Black Students Leadership Conference (SBSLC) that occurred January 19-22, 2017 held on the campus of Texas A&M University. SBSLC was formed as a yearly forum where African American students from across the country could assemble to engage in meaningful personal and professional development while addressing the problems and concerns that affected the Black community. Now in its 29th year of existence, SBSLC carries on that legacy and unites nearly 1,000 student participants, advisors, workshop presenters, nationally renowned speakers, and a variety of corporations and graduate institutions each January for three truly impactful days of conference activities.

By Ecaroh Jackson ’18 | University Scholar, University Honors Program | Interdisciplinary Studies major | College of Education and Human Development

Yurisa Garcia ‘18 | FOCUS, Regents’ Scholar | Agribusiness major |College of Agriculture and Life Sciences


I had the privilege of experiencing an empowering conference that not only affirmed my beliefs, but also challenged me to reevaluate them as well.  I attended multiple workshops, but the one that spoke to me was titled “Glass Half Full or Half Empty”.  Dr. Brittany Collins-Hampston, the speaker, discussed the term “framing” in great detail.  She provided the audience with advice on how to be a successful framer, which I found to be very helpful.  By the end of the workshop, I was able to effectively frame a topic into what I wanted to convey.  Throughout the conference we had a few keynote speakers that filled our meal breaks with knowledge.  One of these speakers was Brian Banks, a former football player that was wrongfully accused of raping one of his high school classmates.  He spent six years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and almost lost his shot at playing professional football.  His speech demanded attention and understanding that hope is never gone.  Banks acknowledged his time wrongfully spent in prison, but didn’t dwell on the negatives of his life and reminded us to do the same.  The highlight of my time at the Southwestern Black Student Leadership Conference was when I got to hear the wise words of Angela Rye, an employee of CNN.  Her address contained a list of ways to start making a difference in the world – ways to step up and become a leader.  Her passion for helping others didn’t go unnoticed as I’ve officially put some of her ideas for success on my to-do list.  Overall, the conference was an excellent learning experience that I hope to partake in again next year.  The information received was priceless and it was well worth my time.


SBSLC was an amazing conference where I learned so much and had a fun time. In the beginning, I was very shy and embarrassed to get involved but others were very friendly and talkative which made it easier to mingle and participate in the workshops. Some major important concepts that I learned was the fact that we are in a world of opportunities and it is our responsibility to be prepared always for when those opportunities come upon our way. Also, how one should not be judged by what one does but how one reacts upon that situation. I grasped a lot of information from the great speakers at the conference and this really allowed me to be open minded with others. This conference not only inspired but motivated me to continue achieving my goals without quitting no matter how tough life gets. Thanks to the SBSLC conference, I am more confident and excited for the opportunities that Texas A&M University has to offer, but mostly what God has in store for me in this world. I am proud to be an Aggie that is ready to knock out any challenges that come my way. The only one stopping you is you therefore, stand up and conquer your dreams.

The University Honors Program at Texas A&M University is one of the most comprehensive of its type anywhere in the United States. Every year, Texas A&M offers more than 300 Honors classes and benefits from the participation of over 2,000 undergraduates in its programs. The University Honors Program is an ideal opportunity for motivated, curious students who are filled with Big Ideas, who long for outlets for creative expression, and who seek out intellectual challenges. The University Honors Program is a part of LAUNCH: Honors.

FOCUS (FOUNDATIONS OF CONTINUED UNDERGRADUATE SUCCESS) offers a learning community experience to first-year students who are Regents’ Scholarship recipients in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, the Department of Biology in the College of Science, and the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health. Students who change majors into FOCUS-related colleges, General Studies, or the College of Liberal Arts for the spring semester of the first year join FOCUS at that time. FOCUS is one of the LAUNCH: Learning Communities.