Golden Students Shine in Class of 2011
At this year's recent commencement exercises, more than 14,000 Miami Dade College students received associate's and bachelor's degrees at five ceremonies across the community.
The College was honored to host the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, who is the third U.S. President to speak at MDC's commencement in the past four years. In praising MDC's diversity, Obama noted that this year's more than 174,000 students come from 181 countries and speak 94 languages. He added that, since more than 90 percent of MDC alumni find jobs in their fields of study, it's fitting that the College's motto is “Opportunity changes everything.”
The stories that follow offer a dozen concrete examples of how MDC students excel in their studies, their careers and their communities, all while giving back to the College and the community that gave them a solid foundation on which to build their promising futures.
Motivated Mother: María “Vickie” López
When María “Vickie” López started losing her sight, she was determined to not let it deter her.
To attend classes at MDC's Kendall Campus, the visually impaired, 38-year-old single mother of two relies mostly on Miami-Dade County's Special Transportation Services, or STS. A psychologymajor with a 3.6 GPA, López manages a full academic workload, community service activities and her teenage sons' bicycle competitions.
She is a member of the Diverse Student Organization and the National Foundation for the Blind, and she advocates for the rights of the blind and visually impaired. On top of it all, López is busy planning her wedding, to a fellow Miami Dade College student.
“I convinced my fiancé to go back to school to get his degree,” she said. “I told him to enroll here, and he will be graduating in spring 2012.”
López made her decision to attend MDC once she heard about the College's excellent ACCESS department, which assists students in maximizing their talents and skills.
“The visually impaired community rated MDC the highest for having the best professors and overall experience for a student like me,” said López. “And I agree. I can't imagine having gone to any other school and achieving what I've achieved. It's not just the professors but the tutors in the lab. The students are all motivated to push each other forward.”
Eventually, she said, “I'd like to work with the veterans and disabled; people who have challenges in their daily lives and those with abilities – to show them that anything is possible if you set your mind to it and establish concrete goals.”
Inspired by Heavenly Goals: Anthony Díaz
Anthony Díaz hasn't had an easy life, but thanks to his hard work and Miami Dade College, his prospects are bright.
Díaz, who maintained a 3.56 GPA in chemical engineering at the Wolfson Campus, was born in Caracas, Venezuela. He was a baby when he moved to Miami, where he lives with his older brother and his father, who is an ice cream vendor.
“I didn't see many opportunities to go away to college,” Díaz said. “My dad makes only $9,000 a year. I had that responsibility to help the family financially. When The Honors College offered me a full scholarship, I was delighted.”
Díaz, 21, has volunteered for the Florida Breast Health Initiative, providing medical information in low-income neighborhoods, and he runs a men's ministry at his church for youths.
“I work with kids who are struggling with their families or have dropped out of school,” said Díaz. “We talk about true manhood – being respectful, being educated, and loving God.”
Accepted to the University of Minnesota, Díaz plans to pursue a doctorate in nuclear physics or chemical engineering.
“It's the third-ranked chemical engineering program in the U.S.,” said Díaz, who teaches the flute in his spare time. “Many of its students go on to graduate school at MIT, Cornell or Cal Tech. Others get hired by Dow Chemical and DuPont. I'm excited about the future.”
Giving Back Good Care He Received: Didier Mbenza
Didier Mbenza has dedicated his life to helping people.
Mbenza was a physician in his native Zaire before moving to the United States. Having now earned an associate degree at MDC as part of the (PA) physician's assistant program, the 46-year-old alumnus plans to remain at MDC's Medical Center Campus to earn a bachelor's.
“Working in medicine is what I love,” said Mbenza, who is married and has two sons. “It is rewarding to care for someone who is ill and help that person recover.”
His desire to heal others stems from health care problems he had in his youth.
“I spent a better part of my childhood in and out of hospitals,” said Mbenza, who is grateful for being health now. “I want to give back the same excellent medical care I received.”
Mbenza, whose first language is French, said MDC is helping him reach his goal of being able to work as a physician in the United States.
“I went into the PA program with nothing financially,” he said. “MDC helped with loans, and private organizations helped me with tuition.”
While studying hard, Mbenza also helped feed the homeless as part of his devotion to community service.
“MDC's PA program is very demanding, and the professors have helped me get through it,” he said. “That's why I like helping people. If people had not helped me, I would not be where I am today."
A Political Education: Stefan Moore
Politics are in Stefan Moore's blood.
Moore, who is majoring in political science and carries a 3.9 GPA at MDC's Hialeah Campus, is the stepson of Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi.
“I just want to tell my fellow students,” said Moore, already sounding eloquently presidential, “that if they take Miami Dade College seriously and take full advantage of the tools the College gives you, they can have a great career in whatever they choose.”
At 22, Moore has already received quite a political education. He put in 250 hours of community service, campaigning for Miami Lakes councilman George López.
Now planning to continue his college education at one of three prestigious universities – Georgetown, Vanderbilt or George Washington, Moore was born and raised in Hialeah. His Cuban-born mother, María Pizzi, is a federal probation officer; his stepfather owns a law firm.
Eventually, Moore wants to return home and begin his political career.
Inspired by the excellent support he has had at MDC, Moore said, “I want to really help people and make a difference.”
Somebody who has made a difference in Moore's life is MDC Professor Alex Gancedo, who teaches social science, international law and American federal government at the Hialeah campus.
“I really can identify with him,” Moore said. “He was born in Cuba and then came to Hialeah. He didn't have much money, but he went to Miami Dade College and then got his law degree from Florida State University and studied at Oxford.”
Gancedo, Moore said, “makes you think differently. He encourages you to learn without forcing you.”
Encourgaing Others to Excel: Angela Overton
Spend a few moments with Angela Overton, and you'll find that she embodies the true, selfless spirit of the medical profession.
Overton, who maintained a 3.5 GPA in the physician's assistant program at MDC's Medical Center Campus, believes in helping her fellow students first.
“I like to encourage others in the program to excel,” said Overton, a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico. “That, in turn, encourages me to excel.”
Because her father was in the Coast Guard, Overton, 25, has moved around a lot in her life. She has lived in Alaska, California and Virginia. But she appears to have found a home in Miami.
Overton has contributed to this community, preparing care packages for Miami Rescue Mission and food for the homeless in Project Downtown. She also helped collect 105 pairs of shoes to give to a charity called Soles 4 Souls.
Overton said her mother is her mentor. She also praises Medical Center Campus advisor Robert Wilcosky for helping her discover the physician's assistant program.
But her journey has not been without its challenges.
“Realizing the responsibility and the enormity of the job has been a challenge,” Overton said of the medical profession. “You learn to deliver news that isn't positive.”
But Overton, who has aspirations of one day earning a master's degree, said the rewards of a career in medicine are far greater than the downsides of the job.
“My main motivation,” she said, “is knowing the influence I will make in the health of many future patients.”
Spreading Their Wings: Veronica and Vanessa Garcia
Identical twins Vanessa and Veronica Garcia think alike about graduating from Miami Dade College.
“It's a bittersweet feeling,” said 21-year-old Veronica. “It's really sad, because MDC has been a second home, but I am looking forward to moving on now that I have graduated. I'm definitely a proud Shark.”
The sisters, of Cuban descent, both participated in MDC's work-study program and served in the West Campus' Student Government Association – Veronica as secretary; Vanessa as treasurer.
A psychology major, Veronica has a 3.95 GPA. She plans to attend the University of Central Florida to complete a bachelor's degree in psychology and, eventually, a doctorate in educational psychology.
Vanessa, who majored in exceptional student education at MDC, will begin working on a bachelor's degree in sociology this fall. “I am so excited,” she said, but also “a little bit nervous because I'm leaving something I'm comfortable with.”
Vanessa maintained a GPA of 3.75. She credits MDC with giving her the opportunity to attend several leadership conferences and participate in Service Learning activities, which combine formal coursework with thoughtfully organized community service.
“On one of my first events with SGA, we teamed up with two other campuses to clean up the shoreline,” Vanessa said. “I felt so good afterward to have helped the environment. That was one of my all-time favorite events for SGA.”
Veronica added, “I hope the future graduates of MDC can really have the same experience as we did and that they can be proud of both their accomplishments and graduating from MDC, because it's awesome to say you are an MDC graduate.”
Full-Time Devotion to Success: Amiose Laura Metayer
With a 3.9 GPA and an MDC associate’s degree in criminal justice, Amiose Laura Metayer had lots of great choices for where to further her education.
The native of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, decided that her best option by far was to continue at MDC’s North Campus, where she completed a bachelor’s degree this spring.
“Miami Dade College is a very good school, and I had a very good relationship with all the professors,” said Metayer, 23, who now plans to attend St. Thomas University to get a master’s degree. “The MDC professors communicate well with their students and support them when they need help.”
Metayer, who was four years old when she and her family moved to Miami, is the oldest of three children. Raised by her single mother, Metayer went to North Miami Beach High School.
Throughout her time at Miami Dade College, Metayer worked full time at various jobs, including at a Walgreens and at a Lexus car dealership. Her busy routine of school and work makes her outstanding grades even more noteworthy.
Metayer’s success at MDC is a testament to her firm convictions that the golden opportunity of higher education leads to personal and professional success.
“I believe in not giving up on yourself,” she said. “Have faith, and you can make something out of yourself.”
Ultimately, Metayer wants to do crime-scene investigations and work for the City of Miami Police Department.
“I like the career because it’s different every day,” she said. “And it would make me feel good if I could make our community safer.”
Military Wisdom: Rebekah León
With a grandfather and both her parents having served in the Marines, it’s no wonder Rebekah León chose the military after high school.
León served in the Marine Corps for nearly nine years, and it was through her work there that she met her husband.
But now that she has spent the past couple of years at Miami Dade College’s Homestead Campus – earning a 3.83 GPA – León has chosen to keep heading down her new academic path.
“I want to be a physical therapist,” said León, who hopes to attend the University of Miami after graduating from MDC. “I want to help people. A physical therapist often plays a vital role in helping someone get back to their normal self after an injury.”
León said joining the Marines and delaying college was the right choice for her.
“It gave me a chance to mature,” said León, 28. “I got to travel the world, going to Japan, the Philippines and South Korea.”
The wisdom she gained in the Marines has no doubt helped her at Miami Dade College. But the demands on her time – she is the mother of a six-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son – are a challenge.
“It’s a huge balancing act,” she said.
León also volunteers once a month at the Coral Reef Nursing Home and teaches Sunday School at Calvary Chapel in Kendall.
She said her time at MDC has been enjoyable, especially thanks to some of the tutors at the Homestead Campus.
“I love the professors and small classes at MDC,” León said. “And the tutor lab is awesome.”
Competitive Spirit: Herman Sánchez
Herman Sánchez carries a 3.53 GPA, plays tennis on an international level and has aspirations of becoming a certified public accountant.
He also has spina bifida, a congenital defect of the spine that confines him to a wheelchair.
The recent graduate of MDC’s Kendall Campus plans to now work on a bachelor’s degree and continue serving as an inspiration to others.
“The fact that I have a physical disability motivates me because I know it doesn’t affect me and only makes me stronger,” said Sánchez, a Miami native whose family hails from Colombia.
“Anything is possible, and I am living proof of this. When others doubted me, I showed them what I can accomplish without their help.”
Sánchez, who also swims and plays basketball, said he enjoys tennis the most, especially since he has developed his skills to be able to play competitively against other wheelchair athletes.
Sánchez would like to eventually earn a master’s degree and then work in accounting for a professional sports team, such as the Miami Heat.
“I’ve always been good with numbers,” he said. “It comes easy to me, and I think there are many opportunities for me in this field.”
Sánchez, 20, said it “feels great” to have earned an associate degree at MDC, where he has learned valuable time-management skills he will continue to use.
“I am ready to start a new chapter in my life as I now work on the bachelor’s degree,” he said. “I’m excited to see what awaits me in the future.”
Sharing an Optimistic Outlook: Christopher Aguilar
Christopher Aguilar has a wide range of options for where to continue his education now that he has completed an associate degree in nursing at The Honors College at MDC’s Wolfson Campus with a 3.9 GPA.
Aguilar’s next step might be Johns Hopkins University, which is his first choice. But he has several other high-ranking favorites, including Pennsylvania State University, Georgetown University and the University of Miami.
Realizing the blessing he has in being able to choose among so many great opportunities, Aguilar shares that optimism with children who need an uplifting outlook on the future. When he is not working hard to excel academically, he mentors children at the YMCA day care.
“These are mostly five-year-old kids who come from very low-income and troubled backgrounds,” he said.
When he first met the children more than a year ago, they did not see college as a path to improvement, Aguilar said.
“I’ve tried to change their perception,” he said. “I told them my story – my family is very poor, I studied hard, and look at me now. I have a full scholarship.”
The youngest of five children born to Honduran parents, Aguilar has a sister who is a nurse, which increased his desire to help other people.
“I’ve always loved medicine, ever since I was a little kid,” he said.
Ultimately, he wants to become an emergency-room physician after he completes all of his future studies.
“I like the unpredictability of the emergency room,” said Aguilar, a Miami native who attended Key Biscayne’s MAST Academy for high school. “It’s very challenging, testing your critical-thinking skills.”
Global Citizen: Hira Shabbir
Just before graduating from Miami Dade College summa cum laude with a degree in biology, Hira Shabbir presented her research on the disparity in the treatment of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University.
The findings from her research have helped inspire her to pursue a doctorate in public health research at Johns Hopkins, which will make her the first woman in her family to go that far in higher education.
Shabbir, 19, also applied to Harvard University, Columbia University, Yale University and Stanford University, among more than a dozen prestigious institutions.
At The Honors College at North Campus, she enrolled in the Bridges to the Future program, designed to help underrepresented minority students pursue doctoral degrees in the biomedical sciences.
“Coming to The Honors College at MDC has been my greatest academic accomplishment. And the Bridges to the Future program really exposed me to the research component,” Shabbir said.
Her long-term goal is to become a “global citizen,” conducting research, raising awareness and promoting preventive medicine to help women, children and minorities all over the world.
“My entire family doesn’t have health insurance. I see this as a problem in the community as well, not just in my own family,” she said.
Last year, when a flood ravaged parts of her family’s native Pakistan, Shabbir launched the International Relief Leadership Project to raise money and supplies.
Bold and determined, Shabbir is poised to become a trailblazer in her field. But she also wants to make a difference at home, where she is challenging cultural norms for women by focusing on her career instead of starting a family first.
“I see myself as a trendsetter,” she said.
Quest for the Best: Rolando Esparza
Rolando Esparza, the 2010 Math Student of the Year at MDC’s InterAmerican Campus, won a similar award in physics this spring, which surprised no one.
Pushing himself to excel, he traveled to several of MDC’s eight campuses in order to take the toughest classes offered by The Honors College.
“He took classes at MDC’s North, Kendall, Wolfson and InterAmerican campuses,” said Jennifer Bravo, director of The Honors College at InterAmerican Campus. “He wanted to be taught by the absolute best of the great professors we have at MDC.”
Esparza’s quest for excellence could lead him to Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Duke or Cornell. He has applied to all five and is awaiting word on acceptance.
Esparza, 18, who has a 4.0 GPA in biomedical engineering at MDC, said the goal of making it to one of his dream schools has carried him far.
“When I was tired, I always kept that image in my head,” he said.
Esparza, who was born in Cuba and raised in Nicaragua, came to Miami to study at MDC. He arrived with his mother and younger brother two years ago. His father, an orthopedic surgeon, stayed in Nicaragua to support the family.
Esparza said his true passion is mathematics. “I’ve taken every math course possible,” he said.
Esparza’s plans include getting a doctoral degree in biomedical engineering, working at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and teaching math and physics.
“I would advise students to follow what they love, and I’ve always loved math,” he said.
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