It's winter 2014, the last day of my first semester at the University of Hartford. Finals are finished. Most of my friends have gone home. Grades have just been posted.
Before even checking, I knew that I had failed all my classes. With a GPA that didn't even reach 1.0, I also knew that I wouldn't be able to return next semester.
I had to tell my mother. I had to tell her that I felt like a huge disappointment. I had to tell her that, even though I was the first person in my family to go to college, I couldn't even make it past one semester.
She answered the phone. I hesitated. I choked up. I asked her how she was doing, joked around, talked about everything except me. But the faltering in my voice gave me away.
My mother asked what was wrong. Before I could tell her, I started to cry. And then it all came out: how moving away from home and studying subjects I wasn't passionate about had taken a toll on me. That the transition to college did not seem rough at the onset, but that looking back, I can see how much stress it put me through. I was a first-generation college student. Everything was new and nobody had really prepared me for it. So many people — my family, my friends, my high school teachers — had such high expectations for me. I had failed.
My mother handled the news the way any loving mother would: She tried to keep my spirits up. She told me not to beat myself up, that there was nothing I could do at this point but learn from the experience and try again next year, whether that was at Hartford or back in New York City at community college.
But even though she was kind, I knew she was upset. I had failed her. I had failed myself.
Two days later, I was back home in the Bronx, completely devastated. I didn't know where my life would go from here. I only knew that I wouldn't be returning to Hartford. Beyond that, the future was murky. I didn't know if I'd go to community college, or if I'd be able to get a job. I was cooking a lot; just focusing on food seemed to ease my mind and distract me from the recent events in my life.
I was making rice when the phone rang that afternoon.
"Hello, is this Anthony?"
"Yes, who is this?" I figured it was someone from Hartford, closing out any remaining business.
"Anthony, this is the Office of the First Lady of the United States. We'd like to invite you to attend the State of the Union address next week with the First Lady. Are you available and interested?"
I nearly dropped my phone into the still-cooking rice.
After the call ended I went into a frenzy. I couldn't believe that out of hundreds of millions of Americans, I was selected to sit with the first lady. Everything that had happened just few days earlier suddenly felt irrelevant.
I couldn't wait to tell my mother. Just like two days before, I cried. This time, it was because of the enormous smile on her face. Barack Obama was the first president she had ever voted for, and now her son would be honored by him at the most important annual speech he gave. I could tell she was proud. I was so glad that all of her years of sacrifice were proving fruitful.
The call wasn't completely random. I had first met the first lady months earlier, the summer after my high school graduation. I was invited to attend the opening summit of her Reach Higher program, an initiative to inspire every student in America to pursue educations beyond high school. I had been selected through a nonprofit organization called iMentor, which provided me an adult mentor, Jack, throughout high school, and had helped me apply and get into college. The attendees of the summit included myself and nine other students — mostly first-generation college students — and nonprofit leaders and philanthropists.
The first lady began the summit by telling me and the other nine students that the struggle never ends. Not even for the president. Pushing past what is expected of you is only the beginning, she said. Facing obstacles in life, and overcoming them, is the only proof needed that anything is possible.
All of us attending that day had stories of pushing past the norm and reaching higher than our expectations through education. We did not let our circumstances distract us from our goals. We all had the opportunity to share our stories, one by one. Even the first lady shared her own story of the challenges she faced when attending college. I was excited to tell my story.
I told the first lady and the rest of the teens how I grew up poor. My mom lived on welfare and my alcoholic father was absent from my life. These events shaped me. As a kid, I experienced things in the projects of the South Bronx that most kids shouldn't ever have to see and go through. Poverty, drug abuse, my friends dying. All before I was 16.
I told the story of how my freshman year of high school ended with me getting news of my best friend, Johnny Moore, being shot and killed. His mom had asked him to go to the convenience store one night, and he got caught up in a feud that had nothing to do with him. I started my sophomore year with an emptiness in my heart. I couldn't wrap my head around not being able to see my best friend, someone who helped shape who I am today.
Halfway through the year, my mother got news that we were being evicted. We were forced to move into a homeless shelter in Brooklyn, miles away from my home. During our multi-month stay at the shelter, I had to wake up at before 4:30 every morning to make it to school on time. I would often get back home close to midnight because of track practice at night.
Despite all this, I told the group, I pushed through because I knew that I had to stay strong and focused. Not just for me. But for my family and friends who depended on me to set an example. I finished my story, the first lady listening to every word.
The weeks leading up to the State of the Union were filled with happiness and anticipation. The doubts that I held because of the failures of my first semester at college had been evaporated by the validation of the White House. If the first lady thought I was good enough to sit next to her, then obviously I was good enough to succeed in the world.
The day before my mom and I headed down to Washington, the White House announced all of the guests invited to sit in the box seats with the first lady of the United States: the astronaut Scott Kelly. Various military veterans. The president of CVS. And me.
Within 10 minutes of the announcement, I was flooded with emails and phone calls from media outlets wanting to learn more about my history and why I was a guest. I did a brief interview with the New York Daily News — they focused on my journey from being a homeless teen in the Bronx to the White House. They called me tenacious. I was a success story.
The next morning, I woke up to so many phone calls, emails, and messages that I didn't know what to do. I was completely overwhelmed. At first, the attention felt good — I was becoming famous. But then I became overwhelmed. I felt like I was lying to the press. They didn't know my real story, how I was about to fail out of college. I felt like I didn't deserve the attention.
On the night of the speech, we arrived at the Capitol and took our seats. The first lady of the United States was introduced. I couldn't hold back my smile. It was still breathtaking that such an iconic and historic family saw me as a representative of something they believed in.
I gave her a hug, and wished her happy birthday, as I knew she had turned 51 only a few days earlier. She smiled and told me that it was nice to see me.
As the speech began, I engaged in hushed conversation with the first lady as I tried to understand everything around me. I mentioned to her that it seemed like the Republicans and Democrats were completely divided. She laughed, and explained that for certain parts of the speech, the left side would stand to applaud, while the rest of the room stayed silent and seated. She pointed out the Supreme Court justices and the members of the Cabinet to me.
At one point, when the president announced a plan to make community college free, I quickly stood up and clapped, belatedly noticing that I stood up before her. She smiled at me. "Usually, everyone follows my lead, but tonight, I'll follow yours," she said.
After the speech, we went into a separate room to take pictures with President Obama. When I got to him, he shook my hand firmly. He told me that his wife talked about me frequently, and was inspired by my ability to push past the obstacles in my life. He urged me to keep up the hard work.
For those few days in Washington, it felt like there was nothing else in the world. The whole experience was amazing — an incredible opportunity and validation, I thought, for the hardships I had overcome in my life.
But when my mother and I returned home, I had to face the facts. Even though I had attended the State of the Union, even though the first lady and the president of the United States knew who I was, I was still right back where I had been before the phone call from the White House. I wasn't in school. I didn't have a job. My mother was still struggling week after week, living paycheck to paycheck. For a moment, I'd believed that the trip would change not only my life, but my family's life as well.
But it didn't. I still had to figure out what I was going to do with myself.
A few days after returning from Washington, the president of the University of Hartford emailed me. Although the White House had not informed him or the school that I would be attending the State of the Union, he had followed my trip from afar. The university had received a lot of attention and praise from my visit. He asked me to come in for a meeting.
At the meeting, the university president and various other school officials asked about attending the speech, and I told them all about the incredible opportunity.
Then they showed me my grades. They told me they would give me one more chance, but that this semester, I would need to excel. They offered support and guidance — they wanted me to succeed.
Although I was excited and grateful, part of me felt used. If it hadn't been for the State of the Union, a student like me would never have had the opportunity to sit down with president of the university. I would have been forced to drop out.
I appreciated the second chance, but I found it hard to get back into the groove of school. I hadn't changed as a student: The only difference was that people suddenly wanted to reach out and help "Anthony, the kid who met the president." They thought I was killing it at school. Why else would I have been at the State of the Union? But I continued to struggle.
It's not that they weren't coming from a good place, or that I didn't appreciate the support: My second semester at Hartford let me grow and helped me better understand myself and the world around me. I made friends who I keep close to this day. But once again, I wasn't able to handle the academic stress.
When the summer rolled around, I had another meeting with the school. They told me that I could not come back in the fall. They suggested that I look into community college. Months after attending the State of the Union with the first lady as a shining success story, I was a college dropout.
I returned home that summer, languishing, lazy, trying to figure out my next steps. In June, the White House invited me to come to DC again to be an official ambassador for the Reach Higher initiative. I didn't know what to do: How could I be an ambassador for the program if I wasn't currently attending college? But I did not tell them about the latest with my situation. I decided to attend.
The White House thought that our first convening was so inspiring that they wanted to hold a second, larger convening with 450 students. The same 10 students who had sat around telling stories with the first lady would now attempt to inspire everyone in the room.
The theme was called "Beating the Odds" and centered on the obstacles we had all overcome to attend college. Seeing so many kids look at me as someone who beat the odds and getting such admiration was difficult for me. I wanted to tell them how messed up everything was. But I just couldn't get the words out because I knew that if I did, I wouldn't have that same impact. The same kid who had sat next to the first lady as an example of how anybody could beat the odds and attend college was no longer even in college. I was distracted the whole day. I felt like a fraud.
It took me a few months to get back on my feet after returning home. I tried to work past my internal shame and frustration. For a while, I sat around doing nothing.
Now, nearly a year later, I'm starting to make progress. I now attend LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City. I also work almost 40 hours per week at Birch, a coffee shop in Manhattan. I am enjoying it, and getting back on track.
But this is not a story of how I overcame everything to reach success. This is just me telling the truth. This is me finally letting go of all the pain and weight I hold in my heart of not wanting to disappoint anybody.
Even as I have refocused and straightened out my life, things aren't always going smoothly. I still struggle with communicating with people who care about me, and have moments where I just disappear and go off the grid. And even though I'm doing better, the hardships are still there. My mom recently lost her job. It's hard to work full time and go to school full time. But I'm willing to make this sacrifice because I truly want to be a leader who people can look up to for my honesty. I don't want to hide things anymore, like I did at the summit.
I have learned so much over the ups and downs of the past year. I have learned that people can see your worth even before you can. I have learned that people are always willing to help, because everyone goes through hardships. I have learned not to be embarrassed or ashamed about who I am, or the hardships I've faced. As the first lady told me, it is only through pain and overcoming obstacles that we can grow.
I am more than any one event in my life. I am more than a former homeless kid. I am more than a success story that sat next to the first lady at the State of the Union. I am more than a former college dropout. I am the sum total of all the events and decisions of my life. And I know that everything that has happened to me will only make me stronger.
Anthony Mendez was born and bred in the Bronx, where he still lives. He currently works for Birch Coffee and attends LaGuardia Community College.
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