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In Their Own Words: IRSC Graduates Describe Their Academic Journeys

In Their Own Words: IRSC Graduates Describe Their Academic Journeys

April 25, 2023 Jon Pine

FORT PIERCE, FL—Indian River State College (IRSC) will hold its spring 2023 Commencement ceremonies on Thursday, May 4, and Friday, May 5, at the Havert L. Fenn Center in Fort Pierce. The ceremonies will recognize the accomplishments of more than 2,600 students who have earned their Bachelor’s and Associate degrees and other credentials during the 2023 spring semester.

These newest IRSC graduates will soon write their next chapter—entering the workforce for the first time, utilizing their new degrees to take on increased responsibilities at their present workplaces, or continuing their studies at IRSC or a university. In celebration of the May 2023 graduating class, we offer a sampling of their inspirational stories:

Austin Hodge, Fort Pierce

Austin HodgeAustin Hodge has been a firefighter, Emergency Medical Technician, and Paramedic with the St. Lucie County Fire District (SLCFD) for seven years, having competed his training at IRSC’s Treasure Coast Public Safety Training Complex. One of the things he noticed in his work is the high percentage of emergency calls involving patients with respiratory-related issues. Seeing an opportunity to fill a need with the SLCFD Air Rescue Team, Austin decided to come back to IRSC and add an A.S. Degree in Respiratory Care to his skill set. When he graduates this month, he will become the first active firefighter/paramedic/respiratory therapist in St. Lucie County Fire Air Rescue.

IRSC’s Respiratory Therapy Care program is a two-year, full-time program, which did not mesh easily with Austin’s shift work at the fire department. For two years he worked extra shifts to build up enough paid time off to use to attend school. Dr. Georgette Rosenfeld, Professor of Respiratory Care, cautioned him that it would be a challenge and laid out the program’s course requirements by semester. “She showed me it was possible, and that’s all I needed to hear,” Austin said.

“I wanted to share my story so I could possibly inspire someone else who has a similar goal,” Austin said. “Even a guy like me, who struggled to pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), and who later obtained my GED, refused to let failure define me. I still made monumental achievements. You can do amazing things with your life.”

At least one person has already been inspired by Austin’s success: His younger brother Jarius has followed in his footsteps to become an EMT, firefighter, and paramedic in the St. Lucie County Fire District. Both boys were raised by a single mother, who taught them to lead by example, Austin says. “It’s not about how much you have, but what you do with what you have. Each one, teach one.”

After graduation, Austin hopes to study for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and apply to Nova University’s Anesthesiologist Assistant program.

Rolande S. Darville, Port St. Lucie

Roland DarvilleRolande Darville was born and raised in Haiti and could not speak English when she first arrived in the United States. But through perseverance and hard work she not only learned English, she earned an Associate in Science Degree in Nursing from Broward Community College (now Broward State College) in 1996 while working part-time. After having two children with her husband, and putting college life on hold to tend to her family, she also prepared her own children for college.

Now, more than 20 years later, Rolande is preparing to receive a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing. Her daughter will graduate with a Degree in Nursing from the University of Central Florida on May 6, while her son will graduate from UCF next year.

Making the decision to come back to Indian River State College did not come without its challenges: Disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic, financial struggles, adapting to new technology, and squeezing her studies around 12-hour nursing night shifts. She thought about quitting more than once. But drawing inspiration from her faith in God and with support from her husband, a school teacher, and her children, she plowed through. “I can do all things through God, who gives me strength,” she said.

Rolande is also thankful for IRSC mentors like Rochelle Popp-Finch, who not only supported her academic journey, but encouraged her to participate in leadership training to become a member of the National Society of Leadership and Success as well as Vice President of the IRSC Student Government Association, Co-President of the College’s International Club, and to tutor other nursing students. “I am grateful to everyone who helped me. I am blessed to be a Pioneer. It is a great chapter of my story.”

Rolande hopes to continue one day to earn a Master’s Degree and continue helping as new nurses come on line. “Learning never stops. Keep learning—and remember to always share your knowledge with somebody else.

Ronald Masse,Vero Beach

Ronald MasseRonald Masse first attended Indian River State College in 2009, a few years after graduating high school. He set his sights on achieving an Associate Degree in Biology, determined to be the first in his family to graduate college. But it was not to be—at least not then.

After decade in the workforce, including as a research technician at the University of Florida Entomology Lab, Ronald realized that he wanted to be on the front lines of scientific discoveries, not just reading about them. He re-enrolled in IRSC in 2019. This time, even though he was juggling a full course load and a full-time job, he stuck with it, eventually earning a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology. He credits his success this time on IRSC’s outstanding faculty members, including Tom D’Elia, Megan Carroll, and Pat Pongam, and undergraduate advisor Merle Litvack.

“We have some of the greatest science faculty here,” Ronald said. “Not only do they foster a sense of curiosity, if you’re interested in something they will try to steer you down that path to see if it’s something you want to do. Without them, I would not have the confidence or the skillset that I possess today.”

In particular, Ronald said, he was impressed with the undergraduate research experience he found in-house at IRSC, including the Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) program and the bioinformatics research program on Citrus Greening Disease. “That has made a real difference in my education,” he said.  He also loves that IRSC has built relationships with outside entities such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the University of Florida, and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute to build on research opportunities for students.

Ronald was selected as a 2023 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. After graduation, he will pursue a Ph.D. in Genetics and Genomics at the University of Florida at its Genetics Institute in Gainesville.

Emily Wille, Hobe Sound

Emily WilleEmily Wille has always harbored a passion for helping others in her community. When she started at Indian River State College she thought nursing would provide a path for her to follow that passion. A few twists and turns later, she is now poised to fulfill a slightly different goal—a Bachelor of Science Degree in Human Services. “Although my academic journey hasn’t always been clear or easy, I did not give up and overcame the hurdles to eventually find inspiration within myself,” Emily said.

She also is finishing up an internship at an addiction facility and hopes to become a clinical case manager after graduation. “The best part about attending IRSC is the relationships I have acquired,” Emily said. “I have made some lifelong friends along this journey that I will always cherish.” She also praises IRSC’s helpful, caring faculty, including academic advisor Leigh Chappell.

Down the road, Emily hopes to apply to Florida Atlantic University to pursue a Master’s Degree in Social Work and eventually become a licensed clinical social worker.

Robert Sansone, Fort Pierce

Robert SansoneElectric vehicles (EVs) are seen by scientists as a major factor in weaning humans off of fossils fuels and reducing our carbon footprint. But efficient electric motors rely on rare earth materials such as Neodymium and Dysprosium, reducing the economic and environmental sustainability of EVs. There are electric motor designs, such as the synchronous reluctance motor, that do not use these rare earth materials, but thus far these designs do not provide enough torque and efficiency to be viable for use in EVs.

Robert Sansone, a 17-year-old IRSC dual-enrollment student may have solved this conundrum. Robert has spent the past two years designing and redesigning synchronous reluctance motors. Using a 3-D printer and whatever other materials he could get his hands on, through trial and error, he finally came with a design that may hold great potential for the future of EV production. His design earned the top prize at the 2022 Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair. In addition, he also was awarded the George D. Yancopoulos Innovator Award, which came with a $75,000 scholarship prize.

Robert credits his success, in part, to his dedicated IRSC professors, such as with IRSC Physical Science Professor Dr. Quan Zheng and Mathematics Professor Dr. Karen Mills. “Thanks to them, I have been able to learn material beyond what is taught in the classroom. They saw my willingness to go above and beyond and they supported that,” he said. “It is much easier to learn when professors are enthusiastic about teaching and understand how to present topics in a way that makes sense for new learners.”

Robert will attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall, pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree with concentrations in electromechanical engineer. He hopes to in a research a development position at a company that specializes in EVs, robotic systems, or sustainable energy.

Najeli Zamora, Fellsmere

Najeli ZamoraAs a first-generation college student, Najeli Zamora had no one to turn to at home for advice about how to navigate the academic system. So many forms to fill out for financial aid and scholarships or registering for the necessary course. “I often felt overwhelmed and confused,” she recalls. “I knew I needed to keep working hard in order to keep the financial assistance coming so I could continue school.”

Najeli’s family were a good source of strength and encouragement. Her parents’ work ethic brought them out of poverty and served as a reminder to her that things can work out if you work hard and persevere. This is a second associate degree for Najeli Zamora. She obtained her first A.S. Degree in Health Sciences from IRSC. This spring she will earn her Associate in Science Degree in Medical Laboratory Technology.

In her last semester, Najeli got to apply what she had learned in a real-world clinical setting in internships at various hospitals throughout the Treasure Coast. The internships also taught her other important life and work skills, such as networking, judgement, time management, and communication, she said. After graduation, Najeli plans to enroll at the University of Central Florida where she will study health science and medicine, while also working as licensed medical laboratory technologist.

Andrew Whittaker,Vero Beach

Andrew WhittakerAndrew Whittaker used what he learned about accounting at Indian River State College by participating in VITA—the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, in which students and professors provide free income tax filing services to needy local residents. “I was able to learn taxes while providing a needed service to the community,” he said. “It also helped me to build strong relationships at IRSC with both students and professors. The worst part about graduating is that I will not have class with these people again.”

Andrew will graduate May 5 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Accounting. He is currently serving an internship, thanks to his IRSC professors’ connections, at Kmetz, Elwell, Graham & Associates in Vero Beach, which provided real-world experience to prepare him for a start in his professional career. Andrew plans to continue his education at another school, but has not chosen one yet. “More than anything, I am just excited to see where my career can go,” he says. “There are many great accounting firms in the area with much to offer. I believe that I can grow on the path that is in front of me.”

Brennen Murphy, New Braunfels, Texas

Brennen MurphyBrennen Murphy began working with children with disabilities when he was just six years old. He developed education programs geared toward students with disabilities when he was still in middle school. This spring he graduates from IRSC with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Exceptional Student Education (ESE). He began teaching at Audubon Elementary School in Brevard County as one of the first in Florida to receive a Military Temporary Teaching Certificate and he recently was nominated for Rookie Teacher of the Year at Audubon.

Brennen is a combat-wounded veteran, having served in the United States Coast Guard. Later, he found IRSC’s online ESE program. “The program was perfect for students like me,” he says. “I was working two jobs, and my wife, Lindsey, and I had recently welcomed our first daughter.” Since he could schedule the online classes around his busy life, Brennen took six classes each semester so he could start teaching as soon as possible.

“I had some amazing professors and mentors to help me along the way,” he said. “Dr. (Kimberly) Zgonc, Professor (Michelle) Kinggard, and Professor (Emily) Renschler were essential to my success at IRSC.” Brennen also credits Lindsey, with whom he welcomed their second child during the process, for making it possible for him to keep up such a rigorous pace. He plans to pursue a Master’s Degree in ESE in the fall at the University of Florida. “I have always pledged to never stop seeking higher education and experience and I will devote myself to teaching children with disabilities,” he says.

Mathieu Zamy, Fort Pierce

Mathieu ZamyAs the first person in his family to pursue a college education, Indian River State College felt like a scary place to Mathieu Zamy of Fort Pierce. “No one in my family even knew how to navigate higher education,” he said. “But through hard work, diligence, and a lot of help, my efforts have paid off.” On May 4, he will walk to accept his Associate in Science Degree in Biology. He’s also learned that he has been accepted into the University of Florida’s Summer Health Professions Program.

Mathieu, his brother, and his two sisters were raised by his single mother. After his mother fell ill and was bed-ridden for most of a year, she finally underwent surgery, which succeeded in getting her back on her feet. “Working in the medical field has always been a dream of mine,” he said. “The way that medicine can heal entire families solidified my goal to seek a medical career. My mother takes great pride and joy in seeing her son on his way to bettering the lives of others. Taking part in this wonderful program at IRSC is just the first step of many that will help me realize my dream.”

The final semester, Mathieu’s mother helped push him to score 90% or better on his exams, he says. “I can say with confidence that her motivation and encouragement got me here.” Others who are responsible for his achievements at IRSC include Student Success Coordinator Merle Litvack, who initially introduced him to the program. He also thanks Dr. Heather Michaels, a Master Instructor of Physical Sciences at IRSC, who wrote his recommendation letter to U.F. After the summer program, Mathieu plans to return to IRSC to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree.

Emily Whittaker, Vero Beach

Emily WhittakerAfter more than a decade in retail, the thought of going back to school at age 34 to study Medical Lab Technology was nerve-wracking for Emily Whittaker of Vero Beach. “This was on top of being a mom to a two-year-old,” she recalls. However, the support of her professors in the School of Health and Science departments and the student services at IRSC alleviated her concerns. “The experience has been nothing short of amazing! I have learned so much and received so much support,” she said. “Their belief in me helped bolster my confidence on this new journey.” Specifically, Emily credits the scholarship she received from the IRSC Foundation for helping her maintain a balance between raising a family and pursuing higher education. “There are not enough thank-yous in the world to show my appreciation,” she said.

As a Medical Laboratory Technologist, Emily will have hands-on involvement in patient care and she will work alongside other caregivers to provide the answers and treatment to improve the lives of others in her community. “That was a motivating factor for me—the chance to have a positive impact on those around me,” she said.

After graduation, Emily anticipates joining the workforce, hopefully in a hospital setting, she said.

Genet Gebreamlak, Port St. Lucie

Genet GebreamlakGenet Gebreamlak homeschooled her three children and always motivated them to do their best. She guided her daughter and older son through high school and then through Indian River State College. When her younger son, Raphael, graduated high school with an Associate Degree in 2021, thanks to dual enrollment in IRSC, Genet decided to begin her own educational journey, entering into IRSC’s Culinary program. On May 5, both Genet and Raphael will graduate from IRSC—mom with an A.S. Degree in Culinary Management, and son with a Bachelor’s Degree in Information Technology Management and Cybersecurity.

“My children know that I love to learn,” Genet said. “They returned the encouragement and helped me with any technical problems I ran into, such as accessing things on the computer.” One time when they were studying together, Genet forgot there was a pizza in the oven until the smell of smoke reached their study room.

Genet always loved food and entertaining and learning about dishes from around the world. She hopes to get degree in business administration and one day run a healthy foods catering business.

Rachel Gould,Vero Beach

Rachel Gould is the first of six siblings to pursue a college education and a degree. “I’m the nerd of the family,” she says. “I’ve always done well in school.” Within one year of entering the Medical Laboratory Technology Associate Degree program at Indian River State College, Rachel was offered a job as a Laboratory Assistant at Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital, which was a real blessing, she says, “because I have been able to experience the real-life aspects of what my future career as an MLT will entail.”

Assistance from the Barbara Pennell Memorial Endowment Scholarship and the Thomas A. Scott Medical Laboratory Technology Scholarship programs were additional blessings, Rachel said. “I am also grateful for my professors—Michael Vogt, Arnater Dowers, and Jennifer Savage. They have all helped me in many ways, big and small. That, along with the support of my husband, family and friends, is what has kept me motivated and determined.”

As for the future following graduation in May, Rachel said she signed a contract to work with Cleveland Clinic as an MLT for at least one year, but she plans on working there long after the contract is fulfilled, she said.

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