June 2012, Volume 16, Number 3


MDC Salutes Its Top Graduates

Solving Global Problems: Mark Overton

Aiming to become a U.S. ambassador, Mark Overton is well on his way to helping solve global problems thanks to travel experiences he has had in The Honors College at MDC.

“During the Salzburg Seminar, we worked on fixing a real-world United Nations dilemma, such as my group’s project to create a plan for overcoming poverty in Cambodia,” he said.

Balancing this U.N. perspective with knowledge of how politics and the media shape policy, Overton also participated in The Honors College’s prestigious Inside Washington seminar.

With mastery of English, Spanish and German and an impressive 3.95 GPA from MDC, the 20-year-old graduate has the skills he needs to excel in diplomacy. This fall he will study political science at the University of Texas in Austin, where he has been accepted, or at another top university to which he has applied, including Northwestern, Georgetown and Emory. After the bachelor’s degree, he plans to study international law.

While at MDC, Overton put his academic theories into action by volunteering extensively with the Florida Immigration Coalition, serving as president of Students Working for Equal Rights at MDC’s North Campus and heading to Tallahassee last year in support of the Dream Act.

“The rally at the capital offered a window through which I came to understand how the other side thinks,” he said. “I  want one day to improve people’s lives using my skills in law and diplomacy.”

– BK

Paying Forward Miracles: Daphne and Francelia Eckembrecher

To anyone who knows Daphne and Francelia Eckembrecher, it comes as no surprise the biology majors are graduating from MDC’s Honors College with 3.78 and 3.83 GPAs and a solid shot at top universities such as Mount Holyoke, Wellesley and Johns Hopkins. The miracle lies in their very existence, being born at only 26 weeks and at high risk for numerous illnesses to which premature babies are prone.

“They almost disconnected me,” said Daphne, who was born with a hole in her heart after receiving excessive blood from her sister in utero from a rare condition called Twin-to-Twin Transfusion Syndrome. Her vigilant mother finally noticed a small finger moving, which saved Daphne’s life.

Now, bearing visible scars from cables that sustained them for the two months they spent in incubators as newborns, the twins are intent on dedicating their lives to helping others through medicine. Daphne is determined to become an obstetrician, Francelia an anesthesiologist.

“Our mom always told us, ‘You’re living for a reason,’ ” said Daphne.

At InterAmerican Campus, the Eckembreckers were able to take many classes in Spanish through The Honors College’s Dual Language Program, improving their bilingual proficiency and workforce marketability. In addition, the twins have volunteered at local hospitals, gaining hands-on experience and a passion for community service.

“Going to MDC was the best choice I ever made,” said Daphne. “I’ve had great advisors and the opportunities The Honors College has given me have been amazing.”

– MR

In Perfect Harmony: Shani and Sadiki Saunders

With a song in her heart and a viola in her hand, Shani Saunders brings joy to those around her, be it at the nursing homes her church group visits or in classes at MDC. This calm, cheerful attitude will will will serve her well in her future career as a physician.

“I’ll probably specialize in trauma medicine,” said the 18-year-old Kendall Campus graduate who is heading this fall to Rice University to study biology on a Delta Sigma Theta Scholarship.

Saunders’ interest in medicine peaked in the summer of 2010, when she shadowed surgeons and got a first-hand look at how emergency rooms work at Homestead Hospital during the Baptist Health South Florida Health Career Academy offered as part of her high school studies at MDC’s School of Advanced Studies (SAS).

“I was able to see everything up close, from laparoscopic gallbladder surgery to physical therapy and newborns being cared for in the nursery,” she said.

When not studying hard to maintain her high 3.93 GPA, Saunders enjoys performing in a chamber group with her 17-year-old brother, Sadiki, who plays the alto saxophone.

The beautiful combination of musical talent and academic excellence runs in the family. Sadiki, who was recently named both a National Merit Scholar and a National Achievement Scholar, also just graduated from MDC and SAS like his sister. Leaving MDC with a perfect 4.0 GPA, he is heading to the University of Pennsylvania in the fall, where he will study math and music.

For other students hoping to excel in both high school and college, Shani offers this sage advice: “Work steadily throughout high school, starting in the ninth grade; don’t wait until junior or senior year. And most of all, get involved in extracurricular activities for which you have a natural passion.”

– BK

Free to Pursue His Dreams: Andy Martínez

He may share a birthday with Steve Jobs, but computer science grad Andy Martínez needs no help from the zodiac to secure a stellar future. Leaving MDC’s Honors College with a 3.96 GPA, Martínez has been accepted to every university he has applied to so far, including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Georgia Tech, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Florida and the University of Miami. He now awaits answers from the final two, the University of California at Berkeley and Cornell University.

Enamored with math and logic, Martínez has applied his cerebral skills in various capacities at Wolfson Campus, serving as president of the Discovering Math club, treasurer of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the National Society of Leadership and Success, and a member of Phi Theta Kappa. He has also won numerous scholarships, including the Advancing Careers of Excellence (ACE) Scholarship, the STEM Innovations Generating Maximum Achievements (SIGMA) Scholarship and the Tools for Success Scholarship. In addition, he received both the Mathematics Student of the Year Award and the President’s Volunteer Service Award, which he earned for more than 100 hours of tutoring.

Besides his community service, Martínez  worked as a tutor in the Wolfson Campus STEM lab to help support his family. Six years ago, his father, an engineer, and mother, an economist, left their careers in Cuba and came to Miami so  he could have a chance at boundless success.

“Whatever I do, I owe it to my parents,” he said. “None of this would have been possible without them.”

Martínez looks forward to completing a bachelor’s in computer science and then graduate studies in artificial intelligence. The Honors College at MDC was instrumental in helping him.

“The Honors College has been great,” he said. “It allowed me to stay close to home and receive the exceptional preparation I needed to get into top universities.”

– MR

Motivated by Success: Inés Cabrera

Inés Cabrera had a fulfilling job she loved in the mortgage industry. Then the recession hit, and she found herself without a job. She knew returning to school would unlock the door to a new future.

“I had to overcome the intimidation of being a nontraditional student who had been out of school for several years,” said Cabrera, who recently graduated from Hialeah Campus with an associate degree and a perfect 4.0 GPA. “If I would have gone to any other institution, I don’t know if I would have done as well. MDC helped me get reacquainted with academia.”

Cabrera now hopes to study at Columbia University or New York University, where she is considering double majoring in psychology and political science, which she came to better understand during a recent internship for a Miami-Dade County commissioner.

“I learned the community’s concerns and what initiatives we can take to help them,” she said.

Besides her studies, Cabrera serves as secretary of Hialeah Campus’ Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. She and other volunteers collected 300 bags of trash at a beach cleanup, and she also worked with the Urban Paradise Guild to plant trees that are essential for the survival of an endangered species of butterfly.

She has won several academic honors, including the Academic Excellence Award in the Arts and Philosophy from the Hialeah Campus and the Alexa Kaufman Scholarship from the United Faculty of Miami Dade College. She also was selected for Phi Theta Kappa’s 2012 All-Florida Academic Team.

“I always had hopes of returning to school,” said Cabrera. “I never dreamed of being as successful as I have been. Success motivates me.”


Passion With Purpose: Marie-Jacques and Kareen Seignon

Marie-Jacques and Kareen Seignon’s lifelong love for science began early when they were children in their native Haiti. Now holding associate degrees in biology from MDC and heading to Smith College on a full ride in the fall, the sisters are turning their passion into a promising future.

“We used to play chemists in a little room in our grandmother’s house with a small alcohol burner,” said Marie-Jacques, 26. “When I had to study for a science test, she would make me a song to remember things by,” said Kareen, younger by one year.

However, the wonderment of childhood has only partly fueled their goal of becoming biomedical researchers. Marie-Jacques, like a few members of her family, suffers from sickle cell anemia. Kareen is a carrier of the genetic disease.

“Some people in the field say it’s impossible to cure, but I just can’t believe that. I want to work on finding a solution,” said Marie-Jacques.

Marie-Jacques attended a private medical school before coming to the U.S., where she sought to perform research that was nearly impossible for her to continue in her homeland. Kareen had begun studying law and linguistics. First enrolling at MDC to improve their English skills, the sisters were immediately recognized by instructors as talents to nurture.

“Our English professor insisted we apply for The Honors College,” said Marie-Jacques. So the Seignons took the entrance test and were accepted into the program. What followed was a series of opportunities opening the doors to their dreams.

Wanting to explore the biomedical field and join the fight in finding a cure for sickle cell anemia, Kareen decided to join her sister in the Bridge to the Baccalaureate program, a partnership between MDC and the University of Miami, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. This enabled them to conduct more than 400 hours of biomedical research at the university.

“MDC was the most incredible experience of my life,” said Marie-Jacques. “If you really have a goal, they’re going to push you to pursue it. They will help you get where you want to go.”

– MR

Destined to Lead: Jessica Giraldo

At 16, Jessica Giraldo made a promise to her father: She would complete a college education – something he and her mother, immigrants of humble origins in Colombia, had been unable to do.

Graduating from high school with straight A’s, Giraldo thought academics would be the least of her worries. But going off to school in Colorado, she learned the hard way how difficult it is to be a first-generation college student.

“I had no support network to help me navigate the system,” she said.

Returning home, she enrolled at MDC’s Wolfson Campus, where she excelled, maintaining a 3.8 GPA, earning both an A.A. in paralegal studies and an A.S. in pre-law, and developing a passion for civic engagement.

Giraldo was recently nominated by Miami Dade College President Dr. Eduardo J. Padrón for the 2012 Newman Civic Fellow Award, an honor shared by only 162 students across the nation. “Jessica has a passion for justice,” said Padrón. “I know she is going places.”

While at MDC, Giraldo was the only nontraditional, non-Honors College participant in Harvard University’s Latino Leadership Initiative. She also was president of MDC’s Society of Law & Community Service, served on MDC’s Paralegal Studies Advisory Board, was a member of the paralegal honor society Lambda Epsilon Chi and worked on community-oriented projects. Closest to her heart, Giraldo helped found 305 Rise, a peer-to-peer program to increase MDC’s retention and completion rates by engaging and providing mentorship to first-year, first-generation minority students.

“I attribute my success to getting a second chance at MDC,” said Giraldo. “It opened doors for me and gave me confidence to achieve my dreams.”


A Joyful Ray of Light: Rayshri Sewnarainsukul

Rayshri Sewnarainsukul is a master at organization. The Homestead Campus student had to be in order to complete an MDC associate degree, maintain a perfect 4.0 GPA, take seven to eight classes each semester and still find the time to volunteer. And she did all this by the tender age of 18.

“I’ve always been able to find a balance in my life,” Sewnarainsukul said. “I’m the kind of person who likes to get all the work done first, so I save the fun until after I finish my homework.”

For the ambitious graduate, who has a black belt in karate, rewarding post-homework activities include teaching children at her karate school, serving as a mentor at Kids for Kids and helping to raise funds for Sunil’s Home Orphanage, which provides loving homes for orphans in India.

Enjoying her work with children and hoping to find a cure for illnesses like Crohn’s disease, which her brother has, Sewnarainsukul will now pursue a pre-pharmacy degree at the University of Miami with the goal of one day becoming a pediatrician or pharmacist. Her exceptional academic record enabled her to earn a UM scholarship along with several grants that will reduce the $40,000 cost of annual tuition to a manageable $3,000.

Sewnarainsukul, who speaks English, Dutch and some Hindi, since her parents are from Suriname, was able to excel so early in life by taking MDC college classes while enrolled in high school at MDC’s School of Advanced Studies (SAS). Her younger brother is now on the same path to success in the MDC/SAS program at Kendall Campus.

With such a strong beginning at Miami Dade College, the future looks bright for Sewnarainsukul, which is befitting for the joyful young woman whose Sanskrit name Rayshri means “queen that radiates light.”

– BK

Turning Lemons Into Lemonade: Mac Dinneen

A few years ago, Mac Dinneen was knocked off course when he was rejected by the college of his choice. Unsure what to do next, he turned to MDC, and he hasn’t looked back since.

The political science major with a near-perfect GPA has thrived at Hialeah Campus, taking on leadership roles in organizations such as Phi Theta Kappa and Model United Nations, joining the Chess Club and submitting works for Café Cultura, one of Miami Dade College’s five award-winning literary magazines.

“Miami Dade College has allowed me to build myself up again,” said Dinneen, who has applied to Notre Dame and Yale University and hopes to one day enter law school and possibly study criminal or international law.

Dinneen’s mentor, Social Sciences Professor Dr. Alex Gancedo, described him as a “brilliant, very hardworking” student.

“Mac is probably one of the top three students I’ve had in terms of intelligence, and he’s an excellent writer and researcher,” Gancedo said. “I think Mac’s going to achieve all his dreams.”

Dinneen was one of the first students from Hialeah Campus to participate in Model United Nations in years, and he had the opportunity to travel to New York City twice to participate in related events. He has spent time volunteering at Miami’s Camillus House, a full-service center for the poor and homeless. In addition, he helped better organize Hialeah Campus’ Phi Theta Kappa so that it now offers more activities and participates in more volunteer efforts.

“MDC has given me a host of opportunities,” Dinneen said. “It made me a better and smarter person, introduced me to books that I’ve never even heard of and opened millions of windows. MDC has given me a much better chance of getting into universities that closed their doors to me before.”


Brilliance by Design: Jessica Obregón

At first glance, Jessica Obregón appears to be the typical high-achieving college student. Graduating from MDC’s Honors College with a 3.92 GPA, she served as president of the Architecture Student Society at North Campus, represented MDC at international architecture conferences and was lauded by professors as “Most Outstanding Senior in Mathematics.” However, add to the mix that just two years ago she spoke no English, and it becomes clear that her brilliance is anything but standard.

“I was 18 when I came from Cuba. Since I didn’t know English, I had to work extremely hard to learn the language in a few months, pass state exams and apply to The Honors College at MDC,” said Obregón, now 20. “Everything was worthwhile in the end.”

Accepted to the prestigious Pratt Institute to continue her architecture studies, Obregón has also applied to Cornell and SCI-Arc, among other top schools.

“Architecture represents the evolution of humankind, how people have lived over time,” she said. “It is not just about building boxes to fill the streets; it is about creating spaces, and feelings within those spaces.”

Growing up in Cuba has contributed to this view. “I constantly felt an immense desire for changing and improving my city, my country,” said Obregón. “I wanted to create appealing places for each generation, places where people could go and, for a moment, forget about the misery they were living in.”

Obregón credits The Honors College for helping forge a path to achieving her goals. “I’ve had brilliant professors who have not only taught me their subjects but educated me for life. MDC has opened the doors to many opportunities for me.”

– MR

Starting Over Together: Gulnar and Imtiaz Memon

For Gulnar and Imtiaz Memon, Miami Dade College offered a fresh start after the married couple relocated from Pakistan to the United States a few years ago.

Although already doctors in their homeland, the Memons unexpectedly found it nearly impossible to find a residency or job without U.S. credentials, even after passing their board exams. Unsure what to do, they considered the physician assistant program at Medical Campus.

“My husband and I are both very grateful to MDC for accepting us into the program. They have given us a tremendous opportunity that was also affordable,” said Gulnar, a 37-year-old mother of three.

She and her husband have managed to maintain stellar GPAs while balancing their academic and family obligations with the help of a strong network of family support and the exceptional example of their parents, who are all physicians. Imtiaz was even selected to tutor other students in the rigorous program because of his work ethic and aptitude. Lending a helping hand to a classmate with dyslexia, Gulnar is a notetaker through the College’s ACCESS program (A Comprehensive Center for Exceptional Student Services).

Imtiaz said the physician assistant program was a good fit for them because it builds on the skills and decision-making expertise they already have from their medical studies in Pakistan. Their education at MDC was especially beneficial because of the diversity of patients they had the opportunity to work with at various clinical sites – something the couple believes will be a huge advantage as they work toward their master’s degrees.


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