James Till was one of two graduating seniors chosen to speak at the FGCU Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday, April 19 as part of a student success showcase. He has been accepted into the graduate program in molecular biology at the University of Colorado. Following are his remarks from the presentation, edited for FGCU360.
In these past few weeks, cognizant that my undergraduate career is coming to a close, I have frequently reflected over my journey at FGCU. Specifically, I find myself elucidating the commonality amongst the steps I see as foundational to me ending up here. What I’ve come to realize is that involvement is integral to success as a university student, which I am sure comes as no surprise. I’ll review my FGCU experience in the hopes of giving insight into how my involvement at FGCU led to my direct acceptance into a program for a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology. Again, I’m sure we all have heard that involved students are the ones graduating in four years, having a job immediately upon graduation, getting accepted into professional programs, and more; but, I want to move beyond the litany of results that my involvement has led to and, rather, focus on the path said involvement has taken for me.
If my time as a mentor and leader in the Honors Program has left me with anything, it is one message, which is repeated at practically every meeting: “A leader is someone who creates opportunity for others.” In my time here, I’ve come to realize that creating opportunity is more than just good leadership; it is the key to success. Creating opportunity is what it means to be involved. They go hand in hand. Molding the means to succeed is what changed me from an insouciant first-year student to one of the graduating seniors behind pushing millions in FGCU’s expenditures towards irrevocably proving our position as a leader in sustainability, community, and stewardship.
You might be surprised to learn, due to my current path in biology, that I came to FGCU from Colorado on a full-ride scholarship for piano performance. Piano is a passion I have held for most of my life, and one that I continue to pursue. At the time of my entrance into FGCU, I envisioned attending university as a sort of buffet of opportunity, where one could simply walk in and pick whatever options seemed appealing. However, after my second year here, I realized how naïve my assumption was, that opportunity was simply handed out. I also had to admit to myself that I did not want to play the piano in a professional capacity. With these lessons learned, I ended up dropping my major and, along with it, all the funding that allowed me to attend this university. Yet, here I am – and how? – because I created the opportunity for me to be here.
Dropping piano forced me to fight for my ability to attend this institution and work to build the foundation that would sustain my subsequent education in biology. For me, this is the moment that FGCU provided the environment I needed to sculpt my future. I realize now that FGCU does not simply provide opportunity. Rather, it champions opportunity and provides the means for students to take the leap and grasp it. Helping others find those means and utilize them to their fullest is where involvement and leadership starts. From mentoring students in the Honors Program to ensuring the success of residents across Honors housing, I applied the opportunities and leadership roles this university leads students to.
And it goes beyond my roles as a mentor and resident assistant. I involved myself early on in the philosophy program by claiming a minor and leveraged the ability I gained through it to conceptualize and tackle problems from different angles, which set me apart from rival interviewees in the Ph.D. acceptance process. I involved myself as an officer of the Gay Straight Alliance, a student organization that’s won two RSO of the Year Awards, and used my position to connect parts of this campus under a single cause to progress students’ ability to express their true selves. I involved myself beyond the civic engagement class to galvanize the Real Food Movement here on campus, which lead to me having a direct voice in the selection of the campus’ next food services provider and the terms of their contract. I involved myself in an internship in the nation’s capital that allowed me to facilitate conversations about STEM between corporate executives, leaders in government, notable universities, and global non-profits. I involved myself in research that has led to a better understanding of biological invasion and publications of novel genes related to the acquired immune system.
If I had not involved myself in these fashions, I most likely would not have had the impetus to acquire the means to stay enrolled after stopping my piano major. It was the opportunities I had created and the bonds that formed alongside them that gave me the motivation to continue onward and push past all obstacles. I am here before you today as a paragon of the FGCU Effect, having created a lasting impact on this university and the community it is a part of, all because my soon-to-be alma mater has a pervasive environment of support for involvement and the opportunity that stems from it. My success does not neatly fit into a measured standard, and yet, it is not one that I think can be discounted. I want my story to corroborate that a university provides its students the means to explore, even in ways that may seem unconventional. What is ultimately the most important factor of this exploration is that, even if it leads to the closing of a chapter in one’s life, new opportunity still remains to involve one’s self in another path to success.
Before I close, I would be remiss not to thank those in the FGCU community who have had an explicit role in my success: in particular my research mentor, Dr. Jan DeJarnette; professors that honed and fed my curiosity, Drs. Elena Ruiz, Kevin Aho, Jon Fishbane, Cliff Renk, Billy Gunnels, and more; those who supported me beyond the classroom, Drs. Nicola Foote and Jessica Rhea; and the staff and supervisors that pushed me to be successful, particularly my Resident Directors.
Thank you for allowing me to share the journey to my success.