Pen to Penn: A Story of a High-School Drop-out to a First Generation College Student

James Gazawie

From Pen to Penn

I come from a particularly non-traditional educational background–something I now view more auspiciously than otherwise. While it may come as a surprise, I was a bit problematic as an adolescent. As such, I found myself expelled from high school within the first few weeks. This incident went on to shape the rest of my life and education quite uniquely. I spent time in juvenile detention facilities and academies for the next year until I was permitted to return to high school as a repeat freshman. Problems persisted, and complications ensued. I was court-ordered into a troubled-youth program called VisionQuest. The education was mediocre. Math consisted of “minute-math” addition and subtraction, which I recall doing in elementary school, and science was a pseudonym for what was a choir dedicated to singing off-pitch periodic table songs; other subjects followed a similar tone. After three years of being tossed between detention centers, shelters, and programs, I eventually obtained my GED and attended vocational school upon my release at the age of 17. I went on to receive my cosmetology license and still maintain it to this day; however, halfway through my vocational training, I knew this path wasn’t for me. I worked random jobs until, at the age of 19, I decided to give education another shot.

I am happy to report that giving it “another shot” worked out for me. Not having a formal education showed me its intrinsic value; obtaining it showed me its importance. This is the foundation that motivated me through community college, state college, and now the University of Pennsylvania; from the penitentiary to UPenn, or pen to Penn as a friend would put it.

Part-time Student

As a part-time student, I have the leisure to really engage with the one and only course in which I am enrolled. This helps to reinforce the value of deeper learning. Without the usual academic workload and concurrent social pressures of the grade chase, it is easier to immerse in the subject material and more impressively, do all of the readings for a class. I don’t recall ever having this accomplishment as an undergraduate. Notwithstanding, I do think there is value in having multiple courses that simultaneously engage in and reinforce topics and concepts, which likely facilitates subject comprehension and proficiency. I will often hear from my peers about overlapping content that lends to informing each other. Correspondingly, my perspective exposure is limited to that of one class and one professor; I only have that lens through which to look right now.

In terms of community involvement, there are certain limitations. I don’t live on or near campus, and the only time I really have with my cohort is the 2 hours we spend in class together. My cohort, however, has never made me feel excluded from anything. Everyone has been wonderful, and I do hope to become more involved going forward.

The Balancing Act

There is also this idea I will describe as “compartmentalized identities”. My professional, social, and academic identities are currently separate and require transitioning or focus-shifting between them. As a full-time student, you are tied into a contextual identity. These identities–and their immediate goals and interests–are all wrapped up in your status as a student; the lines are situationally blurred. Everything is conveniently located within literal and figurative proximity and you seldom experience any transitional lag. This is not to diminish other distinct identities that present very real challenges; rather, these compartmentalized identities are simply an additional and persisting challenge as a part-time student. Work, school, and life are a real balancing act, and it is probably good practice for life beyond Penn.

It is important to acknowledge that all of this is my perspective as a part-time student in my first semester and will most likely evolve as we get closer to graduation! Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have!

2 thoughts on “Pen to Penn: A Story of a High-School Drop-out to a First Generation College Student

  1. You are an amazing person who is just getting started on being an inspiration for others. “We go through it to help others go through it”.


  2. Your story is remarkable and exciting to read. At a time when I seem to have lost hope in the younger generations, your persistence and desire to learn is commendable. It affirms my beliefs that we are never too old to learn and expand our knowledge. No one ever regrets learning more. Keep learning. Proud of you,


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