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As we close out the 2019 Spring semester, we would like to take a moment to showcase the CASE Worlds Ahead graduates. These graduates exhibit outstanding perseverance, intelligence and personal strength during their time at FIU, and fully demonstrate and embrace what it means to be Worlds Ahead.

Worlds Ahead Graduates are nominated by faculty members to be personally honored during their commencement ceremony. Their ingenuity, compassion, intelligence and courage set them apart from their graduating class. We mark them down in FIU history through a news feature and in the Past Worlds Ahead Graduates record. Read about what makes them Worlds Ahead.

Salma Hadeed — Ed.D. in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, School of Education and Human Development

Salma Hadeed’s late mother once told her “a smile can change someone’s day around, and it doesn’t cost a thing.” A native of Trinidad and Tobago, and a now four-time graduate of FIU, Salma was encouraged by her parents to give and not expect anything in return.

Early in her career, she learned she wanted to be in a position that could positively impact the employee experience. She was working for Hilton and saw opportunities to improve training for senior management.

This led her to pursue an M.S. and now Ed.D. in adult education and human development. While earning her master’s she met one her mentors, Judith Bernier, director of FIU’s Center for Labor Research Studies. Salma was already working for the Office of Global Learning but used her spare time to sit in on Bernier’s lectures to gain experience teaching in the classroom.

Salma is the first person in her family to complete a doctoral degree. Today, her days are spent making kids smile, something she knows would make her mother proud. She is now working for Disney English in Shenzhen, China as a foreign trainer, providing an engaging English learning experience for kids between the ages of 3-12. She hopes to continue to encourage people of all ages to look within so they can become improved versions of themselves.

Nahid Haghayegh – Master of Science in International and Intercultural Education, School of Education and Human Development

Nahid Haghayegh believes the ripple effects of social change begin with education.

During her undergraduate career, Nahid studied abroad in the Czech Republic. There, she worked with organizations focused on stopping human trafficking, social welfare, HIV/AIDS prevention and education for incarcerated individuals. Her time in Prague inspired her to get a certification for teaching English as a foreign language. She lived in Chile for a year-and-a-half to teach and counsel youth. While there, she developed a “Human Rights in English” curriculum, teaching students about sexual injustice, the Holocaust and race relations. Back in the states, she worked with the nonprofit organization Three Strands to coordinate a 5K that raised money for trafficked victims in Cambodia.

Her desire to study education through a global lens made her a perfect match for a master’s in international and intercultural education. She has presented at different conferences regarding human trafficking. As an active member of the campus charter of Amnesty International, she’s facilitated workshops focused on gender-related violence.

Nahid is a first-generation college graduate who credits Associate Professor Maria Lovett, Adjunct Professor Fernanda Pineda, and assistant professors Emily Anderson and Elizabeth Anderson for inspiring her through their own passions. After commencement, she plans to pursue her Ph.D. in sociology. She also hopes to write a book to educate others on human rights and social justice.

Jonathan Abdullah — Ed.D in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, School of Education and Human Development

Jonathan Abdullah’s parents were a great source of inspiration. His mother Theresa Josephine Lovelady instilled in him a passion for education. Despite being the son of poor sharecroppers from Arkansas, his father, John Madison Brown, earned a master’s degree in engineering and patented technology for a company that would eventually be bought out by AT&T. He retired with a net worth of $5 million. By the time his father died, however, he had lost it all.

For all his education and workplace accomplishments, Jonathan’s father lacked financial literacy. At FIU, Jonathan sought to understand why many black men lacked the financial resources to maintain themselves or their families. Few had set up reserves to cover the cost of emergencies like repairing their cars or damage in their homes. Others fell into the trap of hyper masculinity – making questionable purchases and taking on burdensome debt to show off their success or make it look like they were successful.

Armed with this knowledge, Jonathan is designing a series of workshops to improve the financial literacy of black men in Southern California, where he now lives. They are designed for small audiences of up to 15 people and address the underlying issues affecting black men, not just the basics of opening bank accounts or balancing a checkbook. As a banking executive, Jonathan is determined to end what he views as a multi-generational problem and help black men improve their financial literacy.

Cassandra Cardenas — Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, School of Integrated Science and Humanity  

Cassandra Cardenas was diagnosed at birth with a serious heart condition – hypoplastic right ventricle and pulmonary atresia. With an underdeveloped right ventricle and a pulmonary valve that failed to develop properly, her heart could not pump blood to her lungs. She underwent her first heart surgery at just a day old, followed by surgeries at 10 months and 3 years old.

Cassandra, who grew up in California, graduated from high school with a 4.0 GPA – a feat she repeated in Las Positas College in California and at FIU as a transfer student. 

But there were challenges: At age 16 she started having flashbacks to her last surgery. She was ultimately diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and her experience in therapy for PTSD solidified her desire to pursue a degree in psychology.

At FIU, Cassandra interned at the Center for Children and Families in the STAND program, working with children and adolescents with ADHD. She is a member of several honor societies: Psi Chi (psychology), Phi Kappa Phi (top 7 percent of juniors), and Tau Sigma (transfer students). At Las Positas she served as vice president of the Psi Beta psychology honor society chapter. While at Las Positas, she also presented at the Western Psychological Association conference and volunteered with the National Alliance for Mental Illness. 

Cassandra plans to pursue a graduate degree in psychology at FIU, with the goal of becoming a licensed mental health counselor.

Francisco Reyes — Master of Science in Mathematical Sciences, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

When Francisco Reyes was a kid, he hated school. Now he wants to work in one. It’s quite the change for the high school dropout who once worked as an air conditioning and refrigeration mechanic for the U.S. Army, a security guard in Miami Beach, grounds crew for the Marlins and for a UPS warehouse.

Francisco’s dad was in the U.S. Air Force. The family settled in Miami when Francisco was 12. As a teenager, he often found himself in trouble at school, which led to his early exit at 16. He earned his GED at 17. He joined the Army at 19 and was honorably discharged a year later. That year, his daughter was born. He worked to provide for her. She provided inspiration.

At 26, he enrolled at Miami Dade College, earning an associate degree with a 3.6 GPA. He transferred to FIU, earning a bachelor’s in applied mathematics. The guy who once hated school wasn’t done yet. He enrolled in the master’s program in mathematical science. While at FIU, he worked as a learning assistant and later a teaching assistant. He was hooked on teaching.

He has accepted a position as an instructor in FIU’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics and will begin the Ph.D. program in the fall. He credits Professor Laura De Carli for supporting him on his journey. Nearly 20 years after walking away from school, he has built a career that will keep him in the classroom for the foreseeable future.

Myesha Lyles — Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

At 17, Myesha Lyles started suffering from a string of bad headaches. The busy high school junior brushed it off, presuming she was tired. When her vision got worse, she thought she needed an eye exam.

Then, she fell down the stairs at home and was rushed to the hospital. Myesha actually had acoustic neuroma, a rare noncancerous tumor, in her brain. After an extensive 14-hour surgery, the tumor was gone, but so was her vision and hearing in her right ear.

Determined to live a life without limits, Myesha spent countless hours in physical and speech therapies. With the help of Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, she learned to cook, clean, use computers and more.

When Myesha transferred to FIU from Miami Dade College, she was homeless, staying in a shelter and endured a two-hour bus ride to get to class. FIU’s Disability Resource Center stepped in and connected Myesha with Fostering Panther Pride, which supports former foster youth and homeless students at FIU.

While balancing her coursework and internship at Gulfstream Elementary, Myesha has been chasing another one of her lifelong passions – contemporary dance. Two years ago, she began taking lessons at a local dance studio. She recently gave her first solo performance at the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana. 

After graduation, Myesha plans to continue dancing, and even try out to be a Miami HEAT Dancer. She also wants to create a non-profit organization called “Dance Without Limits” to help young girls express themselves through dance. 

Camila Sarcone —Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences, School of Environment, Arts and Society

Camila Sarcone knew her whole life she wanted to be a scientist, having been exposed to the lab setting at an early age since her mom worked as a marine biologist. She began exploring this passion in high school.

As Camila grew older her research became more complex. She would spend her summers in labs in Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania learning about a wide range of topics, from genetic editing to pancreatic beta cell identity.

When she wasn’t in a lab, she was presenting her research at conferences where she often received high praise. Among her many achievements, Camila is an Honors College student, QBIC Scholar, MARC U*Star affiliate and McNair Fellow. She also served as President of the Undergraduate Research Society, with her main goal being to increase student membership in research labs. 

At FIU, she merged her interests in research and nutrition to begin researching obesity. Working with Manuel Alejandro Barbieri, Camila studied mutated forms of proteins to further understand fat cell pathways. She has also investigated the role of effector proteins on metastatic breast cancer cell lines. Her goal is to further understand the cellular and molecular processes underlying obesity and cancer.

After graduation, Camila will enter a postbaccalaureate program at the National Institutes of Health where she will be conducting clinical research focused on chronic metabolic diseases like diabetes and obesity. She plans to study for her MCAT and hopes to earn her M.D./Ph.D.

Adrian Figueroa — Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies, School of Environment, Arts and Society

Growing up, Adrian Figueroa admired Steve Irwin – the rugged conservationist and TV star who followed animals anywhere they went to gain a better understanding of how they lived and how they affected their environment.

Many of Adrian’s family trips involved camping and fishing. Those experiences and Irwin’s show inspired Adrian to pursue a career in environmental studies. As an FIU student researching how tortoises affect Florida’s endangered pine rocklands around Zoo Miami, Adrian did a very Steve Irwin thing – he followed the tortoises and collected their droppings for a year. Sifting through 2,484 seeds in 54 of the finest, fresh-cut-grass-smelling samples led him to this discovery: Gopher tortoises eat the pineland croton, which is the only known shelter for two federally protected butterflies. This could inform conservation strategies for the tortoise, the pine rocklands, the butterflies and the plant communities.

Like Irwin, Adrian’s research efforts have taken him abroad. On a recent National Science Foundation summer research trip to Costa Rica, Adrian placed camera traps in 48 locations in the jungle to study the behavior of pig-like animals called collared pecarries. Since Fall 2018, he has also mentored 20 FIU student researchers in the university’s Tropical Conservation Internship Program.

But Adrian’s not done with the gopher tortoise. He was accepted into the Ph.D. program in earth systems science at FIU, where he hopes to see if the pineland croton seeds grow wherever the tortoises leave them behind.

Juliano Tiburcio de Freitas — Ph.D in Biology, School of Environment, Arts and Society

Juliano Tiburcio de Freitas is determined to stop melanoma — the deadliest type of skin cancer because of its ability to spread to distant organs.

Juliano is from Viçosa, a small town in Brazil. While pursuing his bachelor’s degree, he and his high school sweetheart — now wife — spent time studying in Europe. In Paris, he volunteered in a lab studying pigment cells and melanoma. The lab’s director encouraged him to pursue a Ph.D. and recommended he contact Lidia Kos from FIU’s Department of Biological Sciences. 

Under Kos’ guidance and after several years of trial and error, Juliano had a breakthrough. By targeting specific molecules associated with melanoma metastasis, he has found a way to considerably slow down tumor growth. Juliano earned a Young Investigator Award at an international conference in Prague for this research.

His fight for a cure stems from his family experience – his two grandmothers and mother battled different forms of cancer. While in high school, he lost one grandmother. In college, he lost the other. While he was in graduate school at FIU, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was almost enough to break his spirit, but his mother’s fight inspired him to press on. She won her battle and today is cancer-free. He says his mom is a survivor in part because someone has not given up on studying treatments for breast cancer. He is not giving up on treatments for melanoma. Juliano has applied for post-doctoral positions to continue his research.

Raul Torres — Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences, School of Environment, Arts and Society

When Raul Torres’ mother was pregnant with him, she developed gestational diabetes. It would eventually turn into Type II diabetes, a condition that Raul feels partially responsible for. It drove him to become a healer.

Raul learned the meaning of sacrifice and hard work from his parents who are both Cuban immigrants. His father, who earned a medical degree in Cuba, had to work in construction to provide for his family when they moved to the United States. His mom cleaned houses. Eventually, they moved to Costa Rica so his father could practice medicine. Raul spent most of his youth there, and graduated high school as the valedictorian. He made his way back to the United States for college, enrolling at FIU as a biological sciences major — the first step in his plans to become a doctor.

Under the guidance of biologist Lidia Kos, Raul, who is part of the Honors College, conducted research, determining cancerous cells can initiate metastasis without the presence of a tumor. He based his honors thesis on this and won the Robert James Smiddy Excellence in Research Award as well as the Best Thesis and Best Presentation awards. His findings are pending publication in a high-impact journal.

Raul is grateful to Kos, as well as instructor Amy Saldana for her guidance throughout his academic career. He has completed two summer research experiences – one at Johns Hopkins and another at Harvard Medical School where he will be doing a one-year post-baccalaureate after graduation.

See the full list of the Spring 2019 Worlds Ahead graduates.