Turning Grief Into Motivation

Turning Grief Into Motivation

Before UVU sophomore Mitch Southwick was even born, his father bought one of the first computers available for home use. He loaded the cumbersome machine in his car, took it into his living room, and then took it apart. He was fascinated by new technology and wanted to understand its inner workings.

Mitch remembers this story when he thinks about his path to higher education. He feels the same sense of curiosity and love of learning as his father and, from a young age, was determined to go to college. But in fall 2018, as he prepared for his first semester at UVU, he realized he was unprepared.

Academically, he was ready, but he had no idea how to get his FAFSA to the right place, or get a student ID card, or even how to check his university email. Mitch needed someone to guide him, but he didn’t know where to turn. His mother had never pursued higher education, and his grandparents didn’t have the answers he needed. His father started classes at ITT Technical Institute but died from cancer before he completed his degree.

Despite feeling lost, Mitch knew that he just needed to find the right resource. With a little research, his grandparents found the I Am First program and encouraged him to call. “I talked to Garrett Nagaishi, and he assured me that we could take care of everything together,” Mitch says. Garrett told Mitch to sign up for the Summer Bridge program, where incoming students can take placement tests for math and English and get information that helps them in their first year.

Garrett also took Mitch on as his mentee, an offer that helped the incoming student feel a sense of belonging. And when Garrett asked Mitch to think about what classes might pique his interest, he thought of his dad reassembling that old computer. He decided to give a few introductory computer science classes a try.

“I had no experience with coding or software,” he says. “And right from the start, I was being asked to build programs. I was totally overwhelmed. When I told Garrett how hard the classes were, he encouraged me to go to the computer science lab for help. I ended up basically living there my whole first year.

The extra tutoring inspired Mitch’s progress. Soon, he was able to write basic code and gained enough confidence to turn his schoolwork into a side project. “I love the fact that I can write a program and that the computer will listen to me,” he says. “My new hobby is building PCs. I think I might've gotten the same fire my dad did. I love the challenge of it.”

Without the I Am First initiative, Mitch says his freshman year would’ve come with a lot of trial and error. “I could’ve made a lot of costly mistakes,” he says. “Not knowing what courses to take, not knowing where to go, failing certain classes because I didn't know what resources were here on campus – it would’ve been a really tough year. Everybody wants to have that person who will help them progress. I’m lucky I have a mentor and the support of the first-generation department.”

Now Mitch works as a senior student success specialist and helps other students navigate through university life. He also works with retention services and reaches out to students who are struggling to pass their courses. He finds out what’s holding them back, then directs them to campus resources like tutoring centers, faculty members, or counseling services.

“My boss calls student success specialists the Google of UVU,” he says. “I didn't really know a lot about college when I started, but now I have the information and I’m helping students every day. My hope is that the students I help turn around and help someone else in need.”