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Ouachita Stories


Finding opportunity in unfamiliar places

A first-generation student’s journey

De'Ja poses with MORE posterFebruary 14, 2019 - De’Ja Smiley

I considered myself to be an “average student” in high school. I wasn’t enrolled in gifted and talented courses, and college wasn’t highly spoken of within my immediate family. My mother received her GED and attended cosmetology school. As my brothers and I got older, she would tell us that she knew college wasn’t for everyone, but that she hoped we would go because she wanted us to have the experience that she missed out on for many years. She also told us how important it was to help and serve others. She told us about how God loves us and has called us to be stewards and share our gifts with our neighbors.

DeJa in South AfricaIt wasn’t until I went on a mission trip with my church youth group to Johannesburg, South Africa, that my Ouachita journey began. After spending two weeks in South Africa, my life and perspective on life changed. It made me more appreciative of the life and the things that God has blessed me with. My time there also allowed me to experience discomfort. I was in a place that I was unfamiliar with, hearing unfamiliar languages and seeing unfamiliar faces.

Because I knew nothing about the things that I observed during my time there, it made me more eager and determined to know. I wanted to understand the children, and I wanted to know just how much we had in common. Being in South Africa allowed me to step out of my comfort zone and talk to those around me. Most importantly, we all were able to share the Gospel. Even though our church settings and backgrounds were different, we quoted the same scripture and sang the same songs.

The Lord called me to missions the summer after South Africa. I came to Ouachita for a tour during my junior year of high school and immediately loved the environment and how friendly everyone was. Because of what I wanted to do, I felt that God was leading me here.

When I came to Ouachita my freshman year, I again found myself in an unfamiliar place. It was overwhelming and intimidating at first. I know probably every student comes into college unaware of what exactly it’s going to be like, but I didn’t really have the opportunity to talk to anyone in my family about their college experiences. Being a first-generation college student and a minority can be very challenging. Sometimes I feel as if I should set myself to a higher standard and work twice as hard as my peers.

But I have been able to overcome those challenges and thrive at Ouachita. I have connected with other students like myself, both first generation college students and minority students. I have been able to pour into other students, and they have poured into me. I have been provided with resources that help me and ensure that I get the academic help that I need.

If I could give any words of encouragement or advice to potential first-generation college students, I would tell them to not be discouraged by it. Allow it to be motivation. Allow it to be one of your reasons to work harder and accomplish a goal. Students do not wear name tags on their shirts that say, “first generation college student.” It doesn’t make you any different from others, stop you from going to class or from receiving opportunities and resources.

Though I felt called to missions, I have also felt called to social work. I have developed a passion for people and children and understanding their needs. I am currently studying sociology and Christian studies. After college, I plan to attend graduate school to earn a master’s degree and become a licensed social worker. I would like to work with children and serve them as the Lord calls us to serve. I’ve had the support and the motivation, and Ouachita has given me the opportunity.

DeJa Smiley profileBy De’Ja Smiley, a junior sociology major from Little Rock, Ark.