By Marli Coonrod
How did a small-town girl end up spending her summer 16 hours away from everything she’s ever known, living with strangers from California, Australia, even South Africa, and reporting for work on Capitol Hill? Was it a once in a lifetime opportunity or pure luck?
Allow me to take you on a journey about someone who always knew she wanted to see the world, but wasn’t quite sure how to get there. Hi, I am Marli Coonrod and I am a current student at Missouri State University who just returned from spending my summer interning in Washington, D.C. for Senator Bill Nelson.
As a first-generation college student, I have faced many struggles since coming to college. During my first semester there were often times I felt alone and that everyone else around me was understanding this whole college thing way better than myself.
It wasn’t until Missouri State that I found a community who supported me every step of the way and encouraged me to chase after my dream, leading me all the way to Washington, D.C.
How my journey started
My journey began back in January when I was sent to represent my university at the annual Missouri Student Leadership Forum.
Not knowing anything about the conference, I decided to attend and ended up seeing the concept of leadership in a completely different view than I had before. I was so moved by the forum, which then led me to apply for their summer internship program, Cornerstone.
My summer in D.C. consisted of being surrounded by a group of positive, fun, outdoors-loving individuals, eating way too much Ben and Jerry’s, fulfilling a childhood dream by traveling to New York City, and learning more about myself than I ever thought was possible.
When one thinks of servant leadership, she may think of leaders that serve in the best interest of others, but the term goes much more into depth. My summer was focused on this and took different approaches at how one can live this out while incorporating her Christian values.
Now when most people view successful individuals, they don’t think about the struggles, failures, or hard times they endured to accomplish their goals. What most people don’t know is that I was not accepted into the internship program during the first round. I received an email saying I had been placed on the wait list and they would let me know if a spot opened up.
Being my stubborn self, I thought, “The chances of that happening are slim, so I should forget about it.” Then two days later, I received an email saying they had a spot open up. I think this is important to note because in an era where it is human instinct to compare our successes with another’s, we need to stop. I learned that my journey of achieving my goals is different than those individuals that I found myself wanting so desperately to become.
Why I took the plunge
There are two reasons why I chose to accept the internship and move to D.C. this summer.
The first reason was to make my parents proud, but the most important reasoning behind my decision was to show every other first-generation college student that they can make their dreams a reality, no matter who they are or where they come from.
Living in D.C. for the past two months was an incredible experience and if I could describe the city in two words, they would be “beautifully diverse.” Before this summer, I pictured D.C. full of politicians, museums, and tourists.
Although there are many of those, I never imagined I would have the opportunity to interact with people from all different backgrounds and even live with others who had grown up on opposite sides of the world than myself.
Everyone has those first-day experiences and mine was no exception. I remember our intern coordinator told us that we would be meeting and having a photo taken with Senator Nelson. As I walked up to him for the picture to be taken, he asked me, “Does my tie look okay?” Then the awkwardness and nervousness that I was feeling became apparent as I stuck two thumbs up and responded, “It looks great.”
This doesn’t seem like much here in the Midwest, but in D.C., it is not seen as the norm. I ended up learning that Senator Nelson and his wife Grace are two of the most humble people I have ever met.
I saw senators bring their dogs into work, held a human brain and had normal conversations with politicians who I have been watching on the news for years. My internship coordinator told me that I wear more pink than she has ever seen in all of her years working on Capitol Hill. (I then explained how it fits my personality.)
This summer was an incredibly humbling and eye-opening experience that no amount of money could ever buy. It allowed me to see the political world behind the scenes of what the media typically chooses to show us.
Thinking about the future
Would I eventually move to D.C.? I think this is a question that I am unable to answer, but as for now, I am excited to take on my final year pursuing my undergraduate degree.
All summer I struggled with what my next step in life was going to be. With graduation quickly approaching next spring, I weighed the options. Going after a full-time job and being done with school work was one. Then I realized that the thought of leaving Missouri State so soon made me sick.
If it wasn’t for the opportunities that this university has given me, then I would not be here discussing the best summer of my life.
I remember when I logged onto Twitter a few weeks ago, and the first tweet I saw was discussing President Clif Smart’s donation of $25,000 to a scholarship fund that supports first-generation students on Missouri State’s campus.
I had a great amount of respect for President Smart before this, but after this was announced, that respect grew and I could not be more proud to attend a university that is being led by individuals who care about us first-gens.
With all of this in mind, I have decided to continue my education and pursue my Master’s degree in communication studies. I know that my work with first-gen students has only begun and I am excited to spread this movement even wider and ensure that all first-gen students realize they can accomplish something as crazy as moving all the way across the states for an entire summer.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Looking back on many of the decisions I have made in college thus far, I find myself relating to what he is referring to.
Inspiring other first-gen students
I think that the best part of being a first-gen student is you have the power to create and form your college experience. No one in your family before has accomplished obtaining a college degree. Be the first one.
Take that giant leap of faith and in the rough times, don’t stop pushing towards your goals. In the end, you will look back at how far you’ve come and know it was worth it all.
If you are the first of your family to attend college, don’t take this characteristic lightly. Being a first-generation college student is something that you should be proud of. You have the opportunity to achieve your goals and do it following your own path.
D.C. was an unforgettable experience, but when I returned to the Midwest, it was like I had never left. Not only my small town of Nevada, Missouri that taught me the value of working hard and staying true to who you are, but also what I like to call my second home, otherwise known as Springfield.
Missouri State has given me the leadership skills and confidence that I can accomplish my dreams no matter what obstacles come my way.
I can say it once, twice, but never enough. I am so proud of every student that is the first of their family to attend college. If this applies to you, I hope this will encourage you to never stop chasing after your goals.
It is frustrating and life doesn’t always go as planned, but keep your head up and remember that you have the power to determine your future. With the help of so many other individuals on this campus, I was able to make my Missouri Statement, and I can’t wait to see what the next chapter in my life will bring first.