June 2013, Volume 17, Number 2


Saluting Our Top Grads

More than 13,000 students bubbled with enthusiasm as they received their diplomas during Miami Dade College's recent commencement ceremonies. Among the many stellar graduates in the Class of 2013 are these 12 outstanding scholars.

Out of This World: Steven Rivadeneira

It's surprising to hear Steven Rivadeneira say he "didn't have the best grades" in high school, especially since he is graduating from MDC's Kendall Campus with a 4.0 GPA and as a member of the Phi Theta Kappa All-USA Academic Team. He credits The Honors College and MDC's outstanding faculty for giving him the opportunity to succeed.

"Miami Dade College and my professors helped me realize I had a lot of potential," said Rivadeneira, who aspires to become a mechanical engineer and one day conduct research in the field of aerospace engineering to improve designs for rockets and to advance space exploration.

He already is getting a jump start on pertinent scientific research through the College's STEM-TRAC program, which attracts promising Hispanic and other underrepresented students to studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). He'll have another opportunity to conduct astrophysics research this summer as one of only eight students selected nationwide to complete a 10-week Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at Texas A&M University.

In addition to his demanding course schedule – which once included taking 24 credits in one semester – this MDC Math Club president also has spent nearly 200 hours tutoring his peers in math and science. "I started seeing students really needed the help a lot, and it emotionally impacted me," Rivadeneira said. "I felt I could have an impact on other students' lives and help them do better."

Rivadeneira is excited and eager to continue his studies at the acclaimed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where this bright mind will continue reaching for the stars.

From Patient to Practitioner: Carolina Assis

A few years ago, Carolina Assis felt like her future was out of her hands. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 17, she came to the United States from Brazil in the hope of getting the medical care she needed. Now, in remission for eight years, she is continuing her studies in nursing, poising herself to help others overcome their own medical battles.

"As a patient with a chronic disease, you really have to understand your condition. You have to become your doctor, your nurse, your No. 1 advocate," said Assis.

Already holding a degree from Brazil in marketing and communications, Assis initially decided to pursue similar studies at MDC. "My life was all about treatment, so I wanted to keep my mind occupied on a totally different topic."

During that time, she partook in a risky medical study that stabilized her condition with such great results that the pharmaceutical company sponsoring her treatment made her an MS ambassador. "I traveled all around the country speaking to MS patients and caregivers not only about my treatment but about my personal experience," Assis said. "I was able to motivate others and give them hope. That was when I knew that I had to work in health care."

Having just earned an Associate in Science in nursing, Assis is ready to complete a Bachelor of Science in nursing at MDC and looks forward to someday sharing her expertise as a teacher and working in the field of nursing informatics. She is grateful to MDC Dean of Nursing Dr. Amy Pettigrew and professors Federico Henríquez and Renee Lebon, for believing in her ability to complete the program despite her own medical obstacles.

Propelled by her passion to help others, Assis is well on her way to achieving her dreams. She was voted a finalist for the March of Dimes' 2012 Student Nurse of the Year award and, in 2011, received the Richard Kobel Memorial Award for academic achievement.

Twice the Talent: Yang Li

Just a couple of months shy of the second anniversary of his moving to the U.S. to study at MDC, Yang Li is rapidly doubling up on his successes. The North Campus Honors College graduate recently won two coveted awards at the 2013 Math Olympics held at the University of North Florida. Facing more than 100 top competitors, Li captured first place in the individual competition, and he and his MDC cohorts nabbed second place in the team component of the event.

Li, who majored in mathematics at MDC and plans to continue his studies in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech, is a two-time champ of the Math Olympics, having earned second place in the team competition last year. That victory inspired him to work even harder this year. As president of MDC's Math Club, he shared his talents with his teammates while also serving as a tutor among his peers. "Math comes easy for me, so I enjoy helping others master it," said the bilingual whiz, who has picked up English with the same facility that he has for numbers.

Not the least bit ambivalent about his career goals, Li has a binary plan: to return home to China so he can share the knowledge and skills acquired abroad by working first as an engineer and then a professor.

And for him, like so many other top grads, MDC was the perfect place to pair his natural gifts with a winning education.

Taking a Global View: Frank Pellegrino

When Frank Pellegrino completed high school five years ago, college wasn't the obvious next step for him. He had worked hard to rise to the rank of Eagle Scout and decided to join the Marine Corps. "I didn't think I had the discipline to go to college," Pellegrino said.

Now graduating from MDC with a 4.0 GPA, government intelligence experience under his belt and the backing of a solid education, Pellegrino has a boundless future before him in his dream field: international relations.

During his time with the Marine Corps, Pellegrino served as an intelligence analyst. "I got the feel for international relations and learned a lot about the inner workings of our country and other countries," he said. When he decided that it was time to give college a try, MDC was an obvious choice to ease him back into the academic world. "I hit the ground running at MDC. Being here has opened up opportunities for me exponentially more than I expected."

At MDC, Pellegrino has learned German and has been heavily involved in student life as president of Phi Theta Kappa honor society, head delegate for the Model United Nations, managing editor of the award-winning Café Cultura literary magazine and vice president of the Photography Club. He attended the Salzburg Global Seminar and recently won Hialeah Campus' Academic Excellence Award for Social Sciences.

Accepted to a number of top universities, Pellegrino will continue his undergraduate studies this fall at Columbia University. His ultimate goal is to work for a government intelligence agency such as the CIA, FBI or National Security Agency.

A World of Possibilities: Marie Desir

Wanting more opportunities for their daughter, Marie Desir's parents moved to the U.S. from Haiti when she was 6 years old. Determined to make her parents proud, she has taken advantage of every opportunity Miami Dade College has to offer as she works toward a career as a physician.

"I've always been interested in the organization Doctors Without Borders," said Desir, a biology student graduating from The Honors College at Kendall Campus with a 4.0 GPA. "Knowing the great need there is out there in the world, I want to use my knowledge to help other people in places like Haiti."

Every news report of destitute and war-torn areas of the world only serves to emphasize her desire to provide medical care to people who need it most, especially after the devastating 2010 earthquake in her homeland.

"With so many people suffering, it motivated me even more to want to help them," said Desir, who also serves as a member of Student Government Association and the College Academic and Student Support Council.

Desir said her experiences in The Honors College – including attending the Salzburg Global Seminar – have allowed her to spread her wings and start considering the larger role she could play.

"When I came back from Austria, it really changed my outlook on life and how I see myself in this world," she said. "I see that I really can make a difference if I want to. After MDC, I'm leaving with all these experiences to share with others. Now, I find no reason to hold myself back."

Quick on the Uptake: Rocío Sevilla Diéguez

Rocío Sevilla Diéguez loves working behind the scenes. The nimble-brained mass communications major, who graduated from MDC's Honors 
College with a 3.9 GPA, is eager to continue the fast-paced career in media production that she began with an internship at Nickelodeon.

A dedicated assistant coach for a field hockey team outside of school, Diéguez is a pro at thinking on her feet. But her first true test of quickly adapting to a new reality came at age 11, when she, her parents and four siblings moved to Miami from their native Argentina with no more than a suitcase each and three days' time to prepare for a new school year in a foreign land.

"There was a lot of insecurity in Argentina at the time," said Diéguez, now 19, referring to the country's fiscal crisis of the early 2000s. As crime grew rampant, Diéguez's family was robbed several times. But it was when her father and 4-year-old brother were carjacked at gunpoint that her parents drew the line and decided it was time to go.

Despite the abrupt new start, Diéguez became an exemplary student. At MDC, she has received the President's Volunteer Service Award for putting in hundreds of hours of community service. She also attended one of The Washington Center's prestigious seminars on public policy. She is excited to transfer this fall to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a full scholarship.

Whether on the field or in the control room, Diéguez is used to being a strong team player: "One of the best things about MDC is that it teaches you how to be a leader."

Rising to the Occasion: Alyssa Restauro

Alyssa Restauro is always looking for her next challenge. That's what led her to MDC's School for Advanced Studies (SAS) at North Campus after her sophomore year of high school. She has excelled in the dual-enrollment program, and along with an associate degree from MDC, she graduated with a 4.0 GPA and an acceptance letter to Cornell University.

"When I heard about the opportunities that opened up to students at SAS, I was drawn to the fact that I would have the ability to grow and connect with my peers, interact with college professors and prepare for college life away from home," she said. "I found SAS really challenging at first. I wasn't used to speaking out. We were really pushed to think outside the box and share our opinions in class."

A math and chemistry whiz, Restauro will major in chemical engineering and then decide between medical school or completing an MBA. She envisions herself in the corporate world, designing systems and products that help businesses operate more efficiently.

Restauro is as active in the community as she is with her studies. Last year, she founded a new student organization, Dare to Care, to visit the children's cancer wing at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital. She also has volunteered at Mount Sinai Medical Center and is a member of two different honor societies and MDC's Student Government Association. She estimates she has volunteered more than 450 hours for her various service projects.

"Attending MDC has definitely made me a better student, but also a better, more well-rounded person," she said. "I can't wait to meet my next challenge."

A Comeback Story: Shawn Costello

Shawn Costello is a great example of how people can completely turn their lives around in just two years at MDC.

Costello was once a self-professed "lazy" student who had problems with attendance in high school and eventually dropped out. With bills to pay, he took an entry-level customer service job, where he quickly recognized he wanted more from life.

"That really opened my eyes and made me realize I had higher aspirations and I was going to have to get back in school," he said. "It wasn't that I wasn't smart; I just hadn't been applying myself. So I got my GED and enrolled in MDC, ready for a second chance."

Thanks to a professor who encouraged him to get involved in a new student research program at Homestead Campus, Costello found a niche and a professional calling.

Graduating from MDC with a 4.0 GPA, Costello will pursue a Ph.D in chemistry and hopes to become a professor some day. He was accepted to Johns Hopkins University on a full ride, among several other scholarship offers. He also was the honored recipient of the MDC Board of Trustee Scholarship at his campus.

His newfound academic success propelled him to get involved in other extracurricular activities on campus. He's active in Phi Theta Kappa honor society, Chemistry Club, an environmental awareness group and also tutors other students in chemistry and math. Through his scientific research, he also was part of the first team of MDC students to present at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans.

"Enrolling at Miami Dade College has opened a lot of doors for me," he said. "The passion my professors have for science and their dedication to their students has given me motivation to pursue my own passion.

Driven to Help Others: Andreina Colatosti Catanho

Andreina Colatosti Catanho is determined to succeed. So much so that right after graduating from high school in Venezuela, she moved by herself to the U.S. to pursue a medical degree.

"I knew that the opportunities for me to be successful were in the United States," said Colatosti Catanho, who graduated from The Honors College at InterAmerican Campus with a perfect GPA. "Miami Dade College is so welcoming to international students, and studying here gave me the best possible chance at success."

That same dogged determination is what's helped her balance an unbelievable roster of extracurricular activities, including the Chemistry Club, Phi Beta Lambda, serving as president of her campus' Phi Theta Kappa honor society, organizing fundraisers, working as a math tutor and student assistant in the Natural Science Department, serving on the College's Hispanic Heritage Committee, racking up community service hours at numerous events and volunteering at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

"When I came to this country, I didn't know anyone, so it was important for me to create a community and an atmosphere where I could be helpful to others," said Colatosti Catanho, who also speaks English, Spanish and Portuguese and was awarded the national President's Volunteer Service Award last year for her hundreds of hours of volunteer work.

While some students like to cruise through their final semester, she was busy juggling 20 credit hours. She was determined to graduate in May so she could apply for a summer research program at the University of Wisconsin. Admitted to numerous colleges, she decided to attend Johns Hopkins University after graduating from MDC.

Inspired by her mother, who is a doctor, she wants to be a surgeon. "She is my motivation because I always saw her working and how she cares about other people," she said. "I have that same drive to help others."

Citizen of the World: Gerard-Marie Pean

Gerard-Marie Pean feels more fortunate than most of his peers in Haiti, where the literacy rate hovers just above 50 percent. Unlike so many others, he had access to a good school and was able to move to the U.S. at age 17 to attend college.

But the plight of people in Haiti and other impoverished countries is never far from his heart. That's why this international relations major is striving to improve the lives of others through the avenues of law and diplomacy. He dreams of one day working at the United Nations or an international aid organization to curb human rights violations in Haiti and beyond.

"During my time at MDC, I have learned so much about places in the world where corruption and resource shortages are widespread," Pean said. "In places like Haiti, people feel like they don't have power to make things better. But I want to change that."

Pean is well on his way to making a difference in the world. He was recruited for MDC's prestigious Honors College at North Campus after his academic potential become apparent to instructors in MDC's program for English as a Second Language for Academic Purposes (EAP). He also serves as head deputy delegate of MDC's Model United Nations and was president of Students Aiding International Development (S.A.I.D.), a student organization that has raised tens of thousands of dollars for sustainable aid projects in both Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

With acceptance letters from several prestigious institutions, Pean decided on George Washington University and looks forward to studying in the nation's capital.

"MDC's programs and its diversity made it the best place for me to start learning about the rest of the world," he said. "I was introduced to so many cultures, and I now feel like I am on my way to becoming a global citizen.

Not Resting on Her Laurels: Vanessa Fleites

It's a good thing Vanessa Fleites doesn't need a lot of sleep. There's not much time to rest for this Kendall Campus student who maintained a 4.0 GPA while balancing activities as an officer of Phi Theta Kappa honor society, Psychology Student Association, Psi Beta national honor society and also volunteering in the Miami Children's Hospital Psychiatric Unit.

On the pre-med track and hoping to become a psychiatrist working with children, Fleites has been accepted to the University of Pennsylvania and also awaits final scholarship packages from several universities. She believes MDC has provided her experiences that she couldn't find in other places.

"My two years at Miami Dade College have truly opened many doors for my future and have prepared me for what is yet to come," said Fleites, who had the opportunity to conduct scientific research at the University of Miami through MDC's Bridges Program. Her work in developmental biology took her to a national conference in California where she presented her work.

As a member of The Honors College, she also attended the Salzburg Global Seminar in Austria, where she gained clarity about her aspirations in life.

"Living here in Miami, our everyday lives are very busy, and I never take the time to think about what I want and how I want to impact society," Fleites said. "My trip to Salzburg and my time at the College as a whole have given me valuable insight and motivation to achieve all of my goals."

Making the Most of Opportunity: Joaquín Nuñez

Growing up in Colombia, Cuban-born Joaquín Nuñez always considered going to college in the U.S. to deepen his passion for marine biology. Then his grandfather in the U.S. was diagnosed with cancer as Nuñez was graduating from high school, suddenly making it all the more important to reunite the family.

While the decision to move was easy, despite his excellent grades in Colombia, getting into college in the U.S. proved no simple task. "I barely spoke English," said Nuñez, whose English is now remarkably fluent. "I had no SAT, GED or TOEFL, only a Colombian high school diploma. MDC was the only institution that gave me a vote of trust, a chance at an education."

That vote of trust motivated Nuñez to excel. "When I set foot at MDC, I thought to myself, 'I'm going to be the best I can be,' " he said. "This college gave me a chance, and I'm going to make it count. It was one of the greatest driving forces to keep my grades up."

Graduating this spring with an Associate in Science in biology, Nuñez immersed himself in undergrad research and campus life at MDC while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. As director of leadership for Wolfson Campus' Phi Theta Kappa honor society, he established the Wolf Pack mentoring program, pairing freshmen with peer mentors to ease their transition into college.

Nuñez was recently honored for his work on the popular program with a campus Academic Excellence Award. In addition, he also served as executive secretary of the National Society of Leadership and Success and volunteered extensively as a biology tutor. Perhaps closest to his heart, he poured hours of service into the campus' Relay for Life campaign to raise funds for the American Cancer Society. In recognition of all his efforts, he received the President's Volunteer Service Award for racking up more than 350 hours of community service.

With plans to attend the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science, Nuñez's prospects are boundless. Intent on boosting environmental awareness, Nuñez envisions seeing his studies through to a postdoctoral degree, publishing future research and working in the public interest to increase global understanding of environmental issues.


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