Jovan Mills had only shared the story of his life with a handful of people. Then he went onstage and shared it with an audience of 500.
Mills, a student at College of Coastal Georgia, recently competed against others from across Georgia to give the keynote address at the University System of Georgia’s annual Regents Scholarship Gala. He won with an address that focused on his experience growing up in Jacksonville and the life events that brought him to being a psychology major today at CCGA.
“I had a whole lot of hardship growing up,” Mills told The News. “My mother was struggling and she couldn’t afford to necessarily provide. She did what was needed, but it was kind of hard … My father wasn’t present, and it was a void that I needed to fill.”
Mills recalled seeking attention through comedy in the classroom and later having angry outbursts, lashing out at others and getting into fights due to the challenges he faced at home.
He was 16 when a gang approached him about joining, but he refused. A couple of weeks later, he was shot and had to spend time in the hospital.
“I could have died,” he said. “I came this close to dying. I ended up persevering through that.”
It was an assistant principal at his high school who helped Mills see the potential in enrolling in college and pursuing his degree. He connected him with CCGA, where Mills decided to enroll. He moved to Brunswick in 2020.
“Coming here and seeing the type of environment I could be in, and also being able to get out of the house, I took school a little more seriously and it landed me here,” he said.
It wasn’t easy going at first, though. Mills said it took him some time to find a community of friends and feel at home on campus. Again, he persevered.
“Once I realized the severity of knowing that I could go back to that lifestyle I was living, I got back on track, got everything in order and I’ve just been going up from there academically,” he said.
At CCGA, he spoke with only a few about some of the challenges he faced in Jacksonville. He shared his story with Quinton Staples, director of diversity initiatives at the college, and with CCGA President Michelle Johnston.
This year, he was presented with the opportunity to tell his story to a much larger number of people at the gala. The event also raises funds to need-based scholarships for USG students.
Mills competed against students from public colleges and universities across the state to be the event’s keynote speaker. He came out on top, and following the ceremony he received a $5,000 scholarship.
When he concluded his keynote speech at the gala, he received a standing ovation.
There’s a power in knowing someone’s story, Mills said, as it’s impossible to look at anyone and know their full lived experience.
“You never know what somebody’s going through,” he said. “A lot of people came up to me and told me how inspiring my story was and how inspired they were by me. For me personally, it’s my story, but I didn’t look at it as if it was going to inspire people or bring people to tears. It was just, this is what I’ve been through.”
He had to be willing to be vulnerable, he said, to talk about some of his experiences.
“Especially as a dude, you’re taught to hold everything in,” Mills said. “It’s a societal weakness.”
There’s strength in connection, he’s learned. There’s also value in accepting help from others.
“Coming from the background I came from, you had to get everything on your own by any means,” he said. “It was a pride thing. ‘You aren’t going to throw back in my face what you did for me.’”
He’s learned he can achieve his goals more quickly by saying yes when others offer their assistance.
“You’ve got to have a team,” he said. “I didn’t really have family or a support system when I was home. But when I came here, everything I cried or prayed for I got. I got a family, I got a support system, people that want to help me and see me be successful. I’ve got all that.”
He said he hopes others will take something positive away from learning about his personal journey. For instance, he hopes they’ll see the importance of perseverance.
“It may seem like everything’s falling apart and you want to give up, but it’s only a season when you’re going through that and it’s a lesson to be learned,” Mills said.
And don’t forget those who offered to help, he said.
“When you get up and you get to where you need to be, don’t forget about others because a lot of times we get through whatever we’re going through and we go back to living our lives and we forget all the people who helped us out or we forget about the struggles and get arrogant,” he said. “So it’s also about remaining humble and remembering that anything can go wrong at any time. Just love your neighbor, help your neighbor out.”
Republished with the permission of The Brunswick News.