When Juan Toro was seven years old, he, his single mother and twin brother moved to Naples, Florida from their native Colombia. None of them spoke English and they didn’t know anyone in Naples.
Unable to afford a home of their own, Juan and his family lived in rented rooms, sharing homes with strangers.
Juan and his brother regularly stayed home alone while their mother cleaned houses, although she struggled to find work because she didn’t speak English. Juan credits his mother’s determination to being where he is today. Her sacrifice has been one of the driving forces behind his academic success.
While at FIU, Juan joined the International Business Honor Society (IBHS) and is the organization’s vice president. As the IBHS’ fundraising chair, he was one of the leaders of the group’s 2016 international service project to India.
The students worked with a group of women to create a source of sustainable income through craft work. The students also taught basic English and math to small children and computer skills such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint to the older girls.
Juan credits professors David Wernick and Louis Melbourne as mentors. After graduation, Juan will take the GRE and hopes to enter FIU’s MBA program. Already focused on the electronics field, he hopes to get a job at Samsung, Amazon or an electronics retailer so he can work and study.
Born in Haiti, Jeffee Alexandre moved to the U.S. at the age of 9 following his mother’s death, accompanied by his father and five siblings.
His father worked two jobs to support the family, but more help was needed, so Jeffee began working at a dollar store in the Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market when he was 12. He worked weekends throughout middle school and most of high school, stocking merchandise on shelves and unloading trucks as well as handling sales and customer service.
Inspired by his father’s dedication and determined to do better, Jeffee enrolled at FIU, studying full-time while working as a full-time sales associate at Walmart.
At FIU, Jeffee was a member of ALPFA at FIU (Association of Latino Professionals for America) an organization dedicated to enhancing opportunities in the business, accounting, finance and related professions. He participated in the organization’s recruitment and mentorship committees, guiding students academically and on their path to success. He also was a member of Techgroup and Toastmasters @ FIU Business.
In February, Jeffee completed an internship at PwC’s Risk Assurance practice. Today three job offers await Jeffee’s graduation: JP Morgan Risk Management, Bank of America Finance Management Associate Program (FMAP), and IBM Consulting.
After graduation, Jeffee will take the GMAT exam and hopes to pursue an MBA through Harvard Business School’s 2+2 Program, a deferred admission program for students who enroll after working for two years.
Leydi Tatiana Restrepo, who lives in Orlando, worked full time while earning an undergraduate degree at the University of Central Florida. As she was earning her master’s degree online at FIU –- an MBA with a concentration in International Business –- Leydi has been working as a senior business immigration paralegal.
In addition to those achievements, Leydi adopted her parents’ values of doing for others and has been helping with clothing drives and other activities for the National Farm Worker Ministry.
She also is a member of the Hispanic Bar Association of Central Florida, and helped with their seminar series, which educates the Hispanic community about important legal topics. She was one of 20 students nationwide who was selected to participate in Microsoft’s Intellectual Property Law Institute.
Through the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities Alumni Connection Program, Leydi has had two internships with the Court Services and Supervision Federal Agency in Washington, D.C.
She is treasurer for the National Society of Hispanic MBA’s, Orlando Chapter and recruitment chair for Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, Incorporated – Alpha Upsilon Alumnae Chapter.
Leydi has tutored at an elementary school in her community and a few years ago was nominated for Outstanding Volunteer of the Year by the State Attorney’s Office – 9th Judicial Circuit.
In 2017 she will become a senior immigration and global mobility specialist for an engineering corporation.
When Maydel Santana was 11, her parents made the fateful decision to leave Cuba with their two children, seeking a better life in the United States. It was 1980 and the Santanas were among 125,000 Cubans who made it to the U.S. during the exodus known as the Mariel boatlift. It was a grueling ordeal, capped by a voyage to Key West in bad weather, aboard an over-capacity shrimping boat.
Maydel eventually enrolled at FIU, studied journalism and served as founding managing editor of The Beacon, the university newspaper. She graduated and worked as a reporter for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.
In 1995 she returned to FIU to work in the Office of Media Relations where she rose to the position of director. In that role, Maydel leads the university’s efforts to tell the FIU story in external media, including newspapers, broadcast and online outlets. Under her leadership, stories about FIU have reached millions of people around the globe and resulted in exposure worth millions of dollars.
Earlier this year, Maydel, who is mother to a teenage daughter, went back into the classroom as part of the inaugural class of the Master of Science in Marketing. This is an accelerated 10-month program specializing in digital marketing, brand development and marketing analytics. After graduation, Maydel plans to use the tools and skills she learned in this innovative program to augment her efforts to tell the FIU story on the national and international stage.
Jill Beaver grew up in North Carolina where she taught high school science for five years. With a background in biology and teaching, Jill wanted to pursue an advanced degree that would expose her to a broader spectrum in science education. She set her sights on FIU’s biochemistry Ph.D. program and moved to Miami in fall 2012. She joined Professor Yuan Liu’s lab in July 2013.
Under Liu’s guidance, Jill has made outstanding contributions to the field of biochemistry. Through groundbreaking research in DNA damage and repair, Jill has identified cellular mechanisms of preventing DNA repeat expansion — the cause of 40 neurodegenerative diseases, including Huntington’s disease, for which there is no cure, yet. Her research has opened international doors with publications in high-profile journals and presentations at international research conferences. She received a presentation award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science — the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific society.
After graduation, Jill has secured a job with the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C. She will be working in their Science Assessment Division, where she can continue her involvement in science education. In the future, Jill hopes to impact science policy to encourage underrepresented students to pursue careers in the biomedical sciences.
Tiffany Gomez and her twin sister, Eileen, lost their mother at the age of 4 and were raised by their father. For a single dad raising two girls and managing his own bakery, life was busy. But being part of a tight-knit Cuban household, they had the support of the twins’ grandparents. When it came time for college, Tiffany and her sister decided to stay close to home and attend FIU.
Tragically, their father was diagnosed with a terminal illness in the fall of 2012. Determined to keep their father’s business afloat and preserve his legacy, the twins became bakers, business owners and caretakers while still pursuing their college degrees. Tiffany’s day at the bakery started at 4 a.m., often after a night of little or no sleep, staying up with her father to keep him as comfortable as possible. In January 2014, her father passed away and Tiffany was more determined than ever to complete her bachelor’s degree in psychology.
The pursuit of this degree has not been easy. Tiffany still grieves for her father. Focusing on school while running a business full time has been a challenge. But to her, this diploma is a promise to her dad and will forever be a reminder to never give up.
After graduation, Tiffany will concentrate on making improvements to the bakery and continue to build a business her father would be proud of.
After U.S. Marine Sergeant Michael Stempien completed his honorable service to his country, including a deployment to the Western Pacific, he decided to complete a college degree. He had started the degree many years ago in his home state of Michigan, before moving to Miami, when he met his wife, Raimy, an FIU alumna. Now with three children, this Marine decided he also would become a Panther to be able to continue to provide for his family.
Michael passed the accounting entrance exam and received help from the GI Bill and guidance from College of Business advisor Margie Leonard and FIU’s Veteran and Military Affairs office.
He began classes in 2014 and soon joined Beta Alpha Psi, the National Honor Society for Accounting, Finance and MIS majors. Through their Friday night firm presentations, Michael networked with business professionals and decided to pursue the audit field.
Michael took advantage of networking events such as the Ahead of the Game career fair and landed interviews with many firms. He is completing an internship with Morrison, Brown, Argiz and Farra, and in January will begin an internship with Ernst and Young’s Miami office.
Michael, now age 29, completed his degree in two years and has earned a 3.9 GPA. He will be continuing his education at FIU working on his Master of Accounting degree and CPA certification.
Two debilitating illnesses made Joseph Sanchez’s pursuit of a bachelor’s degree a five-year ordeal.
Diagnosed with cerebral palsy and Crohn’s disease, Joseph has undergone 18 surgeries on his eyes, legs and abdomen. One surgery was so intense it forced him to stay home for a year and recover.
During that time, he kept in touch with friends and one of them suggested he take an introductory recreational therapy course. Taking that class was a “Eureka!” moment for Joseph because he had found a career where he had a hands-on role in helping people like himself overcome disabilities.
Joseph credits his mentors, professors Cari Autry and Alexis McKenney, for sparking the interest in a career that will allow him to meld his love for technology with his passion for helping people with disabilities. He also heaps praise on the patient driving instructor who helped him learn to drive over the course of 15 months. This allowed Joseph to commute to an internship and gave him his first taste of independence.
After commencement, Joseph looks forward to finding a job in the recreational therapy field where he can help his patients use technology to improve their skills or cognitive abilities. He also plans to earn a master’s degree in recreational therapy and to one day move out of his parents’ home and live independently.
Born in London, Ian Jones earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the United Kingdom and then enrolled at FIU to pursue a Ph.D. in biological sciences.
As a doctoral student in Suzanne Koptur’s Plant Ecology Lab, he has proven himself as an excellent researcher and teacher. His doctoral research is dedicated to understanding the interactions between plants and insects, including ants, butterflies and caterpillars, and how these interactions are influenced by people and the environment. Ian has published five peer-reviewed papers and given numerous presentations. He has twice been recognized with the “Best Student Presentation” award by the Botanical Society of America, one of the world’s largest societies devoted to the study of plants and related organisms.
He also taught undergraduate courses through FIU’s Quantifying Biology in the Classroom, a program for students interested in taking a more in-depth approach to studying biology.
Upon graduation, Ian will join the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a researcher. He is dedicating his career to contributing knowledge that allows human populations to grow while minimizing their impacts on the environment.
Daymara Vega had to make difficult choices to move to the United States.
She would have to walk away from school just a year shy of earning a college degree in meteorology. She would have to learn a new language. The one thing Daymara wouldn’t do was leave her mother and her older sister, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, behind in Cuba.
When the three women arrived in the United States, Daymara would continue making sacrifices for her family. She started working a 3 a.m. shift as a passenger service representative for American Airlines. She spent a year learning English and another year earning an associate degree before transferring to FIU.
Thanks to the mentorship of professor Hugh Willoughby, Daymara persevered in the university’s rigorous meteorology program, earning a 3.22 GPA and interning in the weather department of Miami’s Telemundo Channel 51 – all while being the lead caregiver for her sister.
Daymara says she’s had to work hard but is grateful to be living in the United States, where she’s been able to take her sister to Disney World and provide her and her mother with the medicines and food that were so difficult to come by in Cuba.
After commencement, Daymara looks forward to continuing her studies and earning graduate degrees that will help her further research into hurricanes and tornados, hoping to make these deadly weather phenomena easier to predict.
Mariela was diagnosed with epilepsy at a young age, enduring a lifetime of seizures and hospitalizations.
As a result of the neurological condition, she has suffered severe memory loss and struggles with short-term memory. Mariela carries around a heavy book bag with several notebooks — one to log her seizures, one with a list of her day-to-day routine, and one where she takes notes on conversations with people so she doesn’t forget what they talked about.
Through it all, Mariela has persisted, one class at a time, to earn her degree. She works with staff at the university’s Center for Academic Success and Center for Excellence in Writing. She works closely with her professors.
When many would have given up, Mariela has worked hard to finish what she started almost 20 years ago. She is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies. Her goal is to find a career working with children.
The son of an engineer, Jorge Cisternas always knew he, too, wanted to be an engineer. His father is a computer engineer, but Jorge opted for mechanical engineering. He chose that discipline because it was hands-on, but he never imagined he’d end up working on airplanes. Through the Aerospace Engineering Club at FIU, he found his calling. As club president, he led team members in the building of an unmanned cargo plane that ranked third worldwide and second nationally in the SAE Aero Design Competition.
A natural leader, Jorge also served as a senator in the Student Government Association and in 2015 was named Senator of the Year by his peers. He created Town Hall meetings with the engineering dean, and also spearheaded the Engineering Showcase held in the Green Library Breezeway. There, engineering students showcased their projects, from model airplanes and cars, to bridges and robots.
Over the summer, Jorge interned at Lockheed Martin, a global aerospace, defense and security company. The internship, which he landed through FIU Career and Talent Development, led to a full-time job. This January, he’ll start with the company as a systems engineer in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. His job will be to create scenarios such as bad weather and engine loss for the flight simulators that pilots use for training.
As a kid growing up in Shanghai, China, Cheng Zhang loved trying to fix anything that was broken. He dreamed of becoming an engineer and having an impact on humanity.
Today, he is engaged in out-of-this-world research – on the next generation of materials that will be used on spacecraft. As a researcher in materials science and engineering, he specializes in high-temperature ceramics for hypersonic vehicles. When a spacecraft reenters the earth’s orbit, its temperature can reach 2,000 degrees. Cheng’s materials will protect the vehicles from melting and oxidation.
Cheng has two mentors – Professor Arvind Agarwal, who convinced him to pursue his Ph.D., and Professor Benjamin Boesl, with whom he works closely in the lab. After graduation, Cheng plans to stay at FIU to do his post doctorate research in the Plasma Forming Lab. There, he’ll work on repairing aircraft using a cold spray technique: a powder deposition process which shoots powders at hypersonic speed.
Cheng has published 17 journal articles – five as first author – in the field of advanced materials development. He has published with collaborators from different disciplines, and across the world. His work has been cited more than 150 times, and led to one patent declaration.
More than 30 years ago, a small boy in Iran fell in love with the natural world. He’d climb the tallest tree to catch a glimpse of a bird’s nest and hike with his father to admire every flower, tree, and mountain peak in the distance. Mohammad Haji-Gholizadeh is that little boy – and today, that passion lives on through his research on one of our most precious resources: water.
Using different methods – including statistical analysis, remote sensing, and Geographic Information Systems – Mohammad has been able to measure the amount of contamination in various bodies of water across South Florida. From this data, he has been able to pinpoint the direct sources of pollution.
Mohammad has published six research papers in the last year, presented three papers in peer-reviewed conferences, and currently has three papers under review.
In 2013, Mohammad was awarded a FIU Presidential Fellowship. Getting by on three or four hours of sleep a night, Mohammad has juggled his studies with being a single father to his son, Mahbod. He has also served as a teaching assistant and has received outstanding evaluations from his students. He’ll be completing his Ph.D. program in just three years.
Mohammad is recently engaged and credits his fiancé, Samira, as a tremendous source of support during his educational journey. Mohammad will continue at FIU in a postdoctoral position and he hopes to become a professor one day.
A theatre major, Vanessa Mings’ days were packed with classes, labs and rehearsal. Many times she went a full day without sleep.
Vanessa struggled financially, as well, finding it difficult to pay for basic student essentials. Fortunately, close friends pitched in.
Despite her challenges, Vanessa became the only FIU theatre student intern at Royal Caribbean, working as a stage management intern in the largest entertainment studio in the U.S, located at FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus.
She also was part of Alpha Psi Omega National Theatre Honor Society and was accepted into the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival Region 4 State Directors and Choreographers Society Fellowship, joining the best student directors in the southeast.
Among her accomplishments, Vanessa worked as a stage manager and sound designer for FIU’s Alternative Summer Theater Festival and was the head stage manager for FIU’s “The Pot,” a play that addresses immigration. She directed the performance showcase “Act Against AIDS” to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Organization, was the assistant director for FIU’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and directed a piece for the New Plays Festival.
She has worked closely with Miami New Drama, a nonprofit theatrical company, and theaters like New Theatre and Island City Stage. Vanessa credits her mentor, theatre professor Michael Yawney, with helping her develop as a director.
After graduation, Vanessa hopes to pursue a master’s in theatre.
Kristen Kaminski spent the last 18 years in the Air Force, completing two mission support activations and a tour in a conflict zone during Operation Enduring Freedom. After visiting so many places around the world, travel has become one of her dearest passions, along with serving her country.
Lured by sunny skies, blue water and childhood memories of family trips to the area, the Chicago native came to South Florida to pursue a degree at FIU. At the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, she tapped into a love for academics, under the mentorship of Professor Miranda Kitterlin.
With guidance from Kitterlin and other faculty, Kristen became an accomplished writer and researcher, co-authoring several studies on topics ranging from the effects of drugs on the food service industry to a case study on Cuba, identifying key areas of interest for American tourists. She has earned several accolades, including a best student paper award for one of her research projects. She also represented the Chaplin School at several research conferences and was a part of numerous honor societies and organizations.
Kristen overcame challenges in earning her degree – she lost her sister to breast cancer and she continued serving in the Air National Guard while studying. Still, she has maintained a 4.0 GPA throughout her entire college career.
After graduation, Kristen plans to pursue a doctorate degree. Following in the footsteps of her mentors, she hopes to become a university professor.
A professional singer and choral conductor in her native Cuba, Nimia Marquez arrived in Mexico as part of a musical tour of the country. At the time, her choral career was blossoming, but she knew that the freedom she craved for herself and her family was within close reach. So after she completed the tour, Nimia made a leap of faith and crossed over into the United States without a word to her husband, Fernando, or parents, Nubia and Paulo, back on the island.
At first, Nimia found work in a bakery, next a sandwich shop and then an optical store. At night she took English classes, determined to find a better job. Finally, Nimia was able to return to her chosen field of music, this time as a private school music teacher.
Nimia’s husband joined her in Miami, and their family grew to include two children, Pablo and Fernando. After eight years in her new homeland, Nimia still missed studying music. A friend told her about the music program at FIU. Her impressive audition for professors Kathleen Wilson and Robert B. Dundas got Nimia accepted to the FIU School of Music on the spot.
Later, there was more good news when Nimia received word that she was awarded a full scholarship to pursue her bachelor’s in music. This semester, Nimia graduates with her master’s in choral conducting.
After raising two sons and running her own photography business, Claire Scott-Bacon entered college at the age of 48 to study law. Although initially unsure of herself, the support and encouragement of many professors along the way kept her going.
Along with her two bachelor’s degrees – one in psychology and one in criminal justice – Claire has earned three certificates, in pre-law, crime scene investigation and professional writing.
This spring, she was named a Student Life Outstanding Scholar and received the College of Arts, Sciences & Education Award for Excellence in Academics and Research in psychology. A member of the Honors College, Phi Beta Kappa, Tau Sigma, Psi Chi, and Alpha Phi Sigma, she was named a Ronald E. McNair Undergraduate Fellow.
This summer, she was selected by the University of Notre Dame for a summer research program, where she studied pathological personality traits and criminal behavior in women.
Under the supervision of her mentor, psychology professor Ryan Winter, Claire conducted a year-long independent research project on jury decision-making and forensic evidence. They also co-authored a study on courtroom semantics and the impact of Ebonics.
In addition to her research, Claire worked 20 hours a week in two psychology labs and volunteered at the College of Law’s death penalty clinic.
Claire hopes to eventually earn her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, specializing in forensic assessment of criminal personalities, as well as a law degree, focusing on wrongful convictions.
During 14 months spent researching the lives of female commercial sex workers in the slums of Kampala, Uganda, Serena Cruz faced challenges that might have deterred other students.
Her research assistant robbed her. Serena was hospitalized for a week after she contracted a parasitic infection. She was repeatedly threatened by pimps, former female sex workers, and even the local police. She experienced three car accidents. Finally, Serena had to leave the country twice: first due to an Ebola outbreak and secondly, when she was accused of being a sex trafficker.
Through her determination and compassion for the subjects of her study, Serena persisted, eventually gaining the trust of sex worker communities to complete groundbreaking research into how women’s daily risk management is accomplished through their social networks, for the many difficulties in their lives – including physical abuse, risk of HIV infection, severe depression, exploitation by the police and even victimization by other sex workers.
Serena’s work, which has major implications for the fight against AIDS in Africa, earned her a research fellowship at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations “Clingendael.” After graduation, she will embark upon a Global Health Equity Scholars postdoctoral fellowship managed by UC Berkeley, Yale, Stanford, and FIU.
Serena credits the support of her dissertation committee and the administrators and advisors in the Department of Politics and International Relations in her success, in particular department chair John F. Clark, a mentor and the chairman of her dissertation committee.
Alexandra Rodzinski had always planned to attend medical school, but believed she could improve the world on a bigger scale by going into medical research instead of health care.
She is the first FIU student to earn a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences in the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine. Working in the lab of Professor Sakhrat Khizroev, she was a part of groundbreaking, award-winning research in the fields of targeted drug delivery to treat cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. During her Ph.D. dissertation project, she applied pioneering, patented FIU nanotechnology to cure cancer in animal models—winning the FIU University Graduate School Provost Award for Outstanding Paper. Alexandra and the team had previously worked on using nanoparticles to wirelessly connect the brain of a mouse to a computer– research that landed on the list of Discover magazine’s top 100 science stories of 2015.
Her studies were selected for presentation at numerous conferences including the prestigious American Association for Cancer Research Annual conference. Alexandra was also recently selected for an award by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, a leading community in biomedical sciences.
Born in Ukraine and raised in Toronto, Ontario, Alexandra got a B.S. in Molecular Biology from Stetson University.
As a pediatrician in his native Yemen, Raed Bahelah saw hundreds of sick children. He’d give peanut butter to the malnourished and medicine to the ill. The children returned to houses without food or clean water. Eventually, they’d come back to see Raed. Sometimes they were worse; sometimes he could not save them. Raed wanted to break this devastating cycle.
Growing up the youngest of ten children, Raed always knew he wanted to help others. With the encouragement of his mother – who never learned to read or write – and the example set by his hardworking father, Raed followed this instinct.
In 2009, he received a Fulbright scholarship and attended Tulane University in New Orleans. Training in tuberculosis and STD clinics, he helped patients who were poor or undocumented immigrants. Raed once again experienced what he had as a pediatrician – that social and economic conditions were strong indicators of health.
With a growing interest in public health, Raed came to FIU and, under the guidance of Professor Wasim Maziak, produced groundbreaking research – including releasing the first ever study on the early symptoms of nicotine dependence among hookah smokers.
After graduation, Raed wants to continue his research by examining the long-term effects and possible treatment options for hookah smokers and hopes to secure a position as a professor in the U.S.
Jack Zaryckyj has overcome extraordinary obstacles in every aspect of his life, even physically, to accomplish his goals.
Over eight years ago, Jack began the physical transition from female to male. The long journey has included changing jobs and schools in three different states, each time facing new surroundings, bigotry and close-mindedness. Jack has persevered in the face of violent slurs, ridicule and fear to come into his own as a man, a husband and now, a nurse.
For Jack, growing up a girl in a small New Hampshire town came with more anxiety than it should for any child. Not fitting in and being considered different was an uphill battle that only increased as a teenager. When he had come out as a lesbian, he faced hostility that caused him to drop out of high school in junior year. Determined to finish, he resumed at a small school nearby and graduated, even through the difficult and sudden loss of his mother.
Jack, who previously never shared his story outside of his circle of loved ones, now prides himself on being a voice for anyone who has ever silenced themselves in fear of rejection or lack of understanding.
After graduation, Jack plans to move to Portland, OR with his wife and two dogs to pursue his nursing career and be closer to family.