Making Their Mark
Top Graduates Take Flight
Each spring, Miami Dade College bids farewell to graduates poised to take leadership roles that will transform our future. This year, the top institutions where they will shine include Ivy League uni-versities such as Yale and Cornell. Here are a handful of those graduates and their inspiring stories.
Making Civic Engagement Fun: Maydee Martínez
Major: Political Science
Final Choice: Georgetown University
At age 12, Maydee Martínez became one of the youngest museum curators in the nation, developing an exhibition at HistoryMiami. It was there that she met MDC Professor Dr. Paul George, a renowned expert in South Florida history.
Fast forward a half-dozen years, and Martínez enrolls in the Honors College at MDC’s Wolfson Campus, where her history professor is … Dr. Paul George.
“You can ask him about anything historic in Miami, and he will tell you the whole story,” Martínez said. “He’s my favorite professor. His breadth of knowledge is incredible.”
Martínez’s own knowledge base is growing rapidly. A Miami native and the daughter of two Cuban-born parents, Martínez is fluent in English, Span-ish and French, the latter a language she has mastered over the course of 12 years of study.
At MDC, Martínez focused her studies on political science. She first became interested in the subject when she was 12 years old during the 2008 U.S. Presidential campaign, and she remembers talking about candidates and policies with her father.
“We didn’t always agree,” Martínez said, “but he encouraged me to voice my opinions.”
At MDC, Martínez built upon that passion for politics when she started working at the Institute for Civic Engagement and Democracy. That experi-ence inspired her and others in the community to create the nonprofit Engage Miami and its website www.engage.miami.
“The whole point of the organization is to make politics and civic engagement as fun and as interesting as possible,” she said. “The goal is to rein-vent politics.”
During her time at MDC, Martínez estimates she registered more than 2,000 voters in time for the 2014 mid-term elections.
She also had a thrill in March when she was one of two members in the audience called on to ask a question of presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders during the Democratic Party’s nationally televised debate held at MDC’s Kendall Campus. Martínez asked each candi-date what they would do to alleviate the crushing debt that thousands of college students face. It was a timely and well-delivered question. And, judg-ing by the trajectory of Martínez’s already overflowing accomplishments, it won’t be the last time she will be closely involved in a political race.
Caring for Others: Julie de León
Final Choice: University of South Florida
Julie de León grew up seeing the impact that compassionate, quality health care could have on patients and their families. She spent countless hours at the assisted living facility owned and operated by her parents – an experience that fostered a personal and professional dedication to helping others.
“After school every day, I was surrounded by nurses, medical equipment and the elderly residents whom I affectionately called ‘mis viejos,’” she said. “This experience as a child had a really positive effect in my life and molded my decision to become a nurse.
“Years later, having my mother as an assistant nurse and my stepfather as a pharmacist, I had the opportunity to further contemplate my interest in the medical field by using their knowledge to feed my curiosity. By the time I was a teenager, I was hooked.”
Graduating with her associate degree in nursing, de León plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree and is already thinking about doctoral programs.
Her passion to serve has led her to receive several awards and volunteer for numerous organizations including Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, Relay for Life and the Child Development Center at South Miami Hospital, to name a few. She also served as president of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society at Hialeah Campus.
“Attending MDC was the best choice for me – not only because of its reputation, but because it has handed me so many opportunities to grow as a student, a leader and caring citizen in my community.”
Turning to Science for Answers: Maurizio Díaz
Major: Biological Engineering
Final Choice: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Maurizio Díaz has accomplished more at 17 than most students have by the time they finish college. But Díaz technically is a college graduate, having earned his associate degree this spring as a dual enrollment high school student at MDC’s School for Advanced Studies (SAS).
Díaz has high aspirations for a career in bioengineering with a focus on neuroscience, and he plans to possibly pursue both a Ph.D. and a medical degree. He dreams of one day being a university professor and running his own laboratory.
He’s already gotten a head start on his research skills, having spent the last two years working in a lab at a local university. What started as a summer internship blossomed into a full-scale research project in which Díaz has played a key role.
“I originally was working under a Ph.D. student, but now that he has graduated, the project is mostly in my hands,” Díaz said. “Ultimately, I am in charge of scheduling undergraduate assistants to help in the lab and facilitating the continuation of our studies. It’s an unbelievable opportunity.”
Díaz’s research involves a specific protein that is important in pain sensation, learning, hunger, heart rate and Alzheimer’s disease. His findings could potentially help other scientists develop new drugs to treat a variety of medical conditions.
Díaz has also co-authored a published paper in the academic journal Biochemistry and was invited to Los Angeles to present at a national confer-ence. He also has received special invitations to attend scientific symposiums that are traditionally reserved for graduate students.
Díaz is not only a top student at MDC’s Homestead Campus, he also has been recognized as a top student in the country as a National Merit Final-ist, Gates Millennium Scholar and a QuestBridge Scholar, earning a full scholarship to Stanford University in addition to similar offers at other top universities.
Empowered Survivor: Rafael Trujillo
Major: Mass Communication/Journalism
Final Choice: Emerson College
Survivor. Warrior. Empowered achiever. This is how Rafael Trujillo describes himself, not out of an inflated sense of pride, but rather to explain how he made it so far in life.
Born prematurely in Venezuela, he overcame early obstacles. “My grandmother and mother always said I was so small as a baby that I fit in a shoe box,” he said.
Moving to the U.S. at age 14, he initially struggled adapting to a new country and culture. But his fighting spirit kicked in, and by the time he arrived at MDC’s InterAmerican Campus as an Honors College student, he was ready to tap into his childhood passion for the media and telling the stories of his community.
“The Honors College helped me develop better public speaking skills and boosted my confidence,” said Trujillo, who focused his MDC studies on journalism and mass communication.
Trujillo credits MDC Professors Diego Tibaquirá and Dr. Michael Lenaghan for guiding him. “They really changed my life by working with me to achieve my maximum potential,” he said.
Their focus on civic engagement inspired Trujillo to take on service-learning projects at MDC, including distributing food to the needy through Farm Share and working a political fair held by the Phi Theta Kappa honor society at InterAmerican Campus.
Trujillo has his sights set on completing a Ph.D. and working as a journalist representing the Latino community. Although the media business is competitive, he is confident he is up to the task, due to his perseverance and the training he received at MDC, which has a long tradition of producing outstanding journalists.
“I felt like I was reborn as a new student once I started at MDC,” he said.
Putting Philosophical Ideas Into Practice: Constance Thurmond
Final Choice: Yale University
Constance Thurmond isn’t the kind of philosophy major who spends a lot of time ruminating over abstract conundrums. As a human rights activist, her principal interest was in ethics, and she will be putting her study to practice in helping to better the lives of those less fortunate, most particularly survivors of human and sex trafficking.
“I became interested in the issue at the age of 16, at a Life of Freedom Center event,” Thurmond said. “I realized there were girls who were my age who had to face this. It was an eye-opener, and I knew I had to work to do something about the problem.”
Thurmond earned a sparkling 3.93 GPA at MDC, and the combination of her scholarship and her leadership experience has helped her punch a ticket to Yale University in the fall, where she will enter the interdisciplinary Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics.
While at MDC, the Wolfson student and Phi Theta Kappa member served as president of MDC’s Human Rights Alliance and vice president for the Model United Nations program. Last year, she won Honorable Mention at the National Model United Nations Conference in New York City, repre-senting the delegation of Sierra Leone. She also received a scholarship from the Confucius Institute to study Chinese and graphic design in Xuzhou, China, last summer.
As part of her human rights advocacy, Thurmond was instrumental in bringing anti-human trafficking organizations to campus to partner with stu-dent organizations to work for social justice causes. She helped organize Poetry for Freedom in benefit of The Life of Freedom Center, an organiza-tion that directly aids survivors of sex trafficking. She also coordinated efforts between the Human Rights Alliance to purchase “hope totes” for sex trafficking survivors, compact care packages including clothes and other necessities that law enforcement personnel can give to survivors when they are rescued.
While at MDC, Thurmond was mentored by Dr. Michael Lenaghan. “He consistently inspired me with his charisma, knowledge and passion for ed-ucation.”
Looking to the future, Thurmond wants to combine policy work and field work in places of need.
“I realize that exact job may not exist yet,” she said. But don’t bet against her creating it.
Out of Her Shell to Cornell: Phanthira Pudgeethosapol
GPA: 3.91 Final Choice: Cornell University
In her native Thailand, Phanthira Pudgeethosapol’s first name means “possessing wealth and happiness.” The 20-year-old is well on her way to acquiring those characteristics now that she is heading to Cornell, where she will continue the psychology studies she began at MDC’s Kendall Campus.
Ultimately, she plans to go to medical school to become a psychiatrist for children and adolescents.
“I want to help young people to prevent them from having problems in their adult lives,” she said. “It’s much easier to do that than to try to fix what has already been broken.”
Born in Thailand’s capital city of Bangkok, Pudgeethosapol arrived in Miami at age 15. Learning English and making the transition to life in the U.S. was extremely difficult for her since she is a naturally shy, quiet person. But her MDC professors helped her learn to communicate more effectively to the point that she became the president of the Psi Beta Honor Society.
Thanks to scholarship opportunities at MDC, such as the American Dream Scholarship and Honors College Fellowship, Pudgeethosapol was able to complete her degree.
“At MDC, I did not have to worry about getting a loan that would be a financial burden to me and my parents,” she said. “I also did not have to worry about being in a class with 100 students or having professors who were unreachable.
“Many of my MDC professors hold Ph.Ds. The quality of education is no different than at a four-year university.”
At MDC, Pudgeethosapol not only profited academically, but also learned to give back to others. She volunteers at South Miami Hospital and has become involved with MDC organizations such as the Institute for Civic Engagement and Democracy.
“MDC gave me great opportunities and assisted me in becoming an active and responsible citizen,” she said. “By participating in volunteer work, I was able to connect to the community outside the classroom, learning to work with different types of people. At MDC, I learned to face the real world.”
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