CASE Worlds Ahead Fall 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. 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.

Meet the CASE Fall 2019 Worlds Ahead Graduates:

Amelia Leon — Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences, School of Environment, Arts and Society

amelia's headshot

Amelia Leon struggled with her identity and sexuality her entire life. Eventually, the questioning became deafening. Decades of repression led to depression. After going to FIU’s Counseling and Psychological Services, Amelia was referred to the LGBTQA Initiatives Office. Suddenly, everything clicked. She knew she couldn’t hide who she was anymore. Amelia came out as bisexual.

Not wanting other students to go through what she did, Amelia became an activist for the LGBTQA community. She founded Simple Pleasures, a sex education club focused on having conversations about sexuality and gender. She also led an initiative to open FIU’s first Pride Center and raised over $1,000 for the Queering Sexual Assault Program through a special benefit concert.

Always wanting to be a lifelong learner, Amelia fell in love with research. A McNair scholar, Amelia worked in FIU’s Memory and Development Lab helping conduct neuroscience research. She’s also held internships at Harvard and the Scripps Research Institute, studying Alzheimer’s and cancer.

Through the Honors College, Amelia took on leadership roles in the Honors Education in the Arts (HEARTS) Connecting Cultures Club and Art Club. As an intern at the Office of Sustainability, Amelia also created a plan for an arboretum at FIU.

Amelia was recently nominated for the prestigious Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships. After graduation, Amelia dreams of pursuing a career in infection and immunology research to find cures to diseases that plague the LGBTQA community.

By Angela Nicoletti

Amanda Estevez — Master of Arts in English Literature, School of Environment, Arts and Society

amanda estevez headshot

Amanda Estevez has always been a bookworm. Before she started elementary school, Amanda would go to the library and check out armfuls of books. She made such an impression on one of the librarians that she gave Amanda a special nickname — ‘Matilda,’ after the Roald Dahl character who loves reading. 

This Matilda almost gave up her love for literature. She tried her hand at nursing and then law before realizing these weren’t the careers she wanted. Feeling uncertain about her next move, she talked to her mother, who always encouraged Amanda’s love of reading. They stood in front of Amanda’s overflowing bookshelves when her mother said: “I wonder what you could study?” Soon after, Amanda applied to FIU and began pursuing what she really loved.

But in 2015, her dreams were almost derailed. Amanda and her mother were rear-ended by a driver going 70 mph in a 30 mph zone. The car accident left them in excruciating pain. Amanda required four surgeries. Her mother needed 11. They took turns helping each other recover, alternating between patient and caregiver.

During this time, Amanda stayed true to her nickname from childhood. Like Matilda, she found solace and escape in literature. At FIU, Amanda pursued her passion for Victorian and Romantic-era poetry, focusing her thesis on the poetry of John Keats. 

After graduation, Amanda wants to pursue her Ph.D. and one day become a professor who makes literature accessible to everyone.

By Angela Nicoletti

Daphne Sugino — Master of Sciences in Environmental Studies, School of Environment, Arts and Society

Daphne Sugino

In July 2017, Daphne Sugino Souffront moved back home to Dorado, Puerto Rico. Two months later, Hurricane Irma hit the island. When it passed, Daphne and her family cleaned up debris and waited for power to be restored. Ten days later, Hurricane Maria made landfall as a Category 4.   

Daphne’s family rode out the storm for 12 hours in their home of 23 years. Strong winds ripped the roof off in sections. A wall fell. The second floor flooded. At the time, there was no time to process what was happening. There was only time to survive.

After the storm, communications systems, water service and electricity were wiped out.

When Daphne’s family ran out of food, they stood in long lines for bread, rice or milk.

During this difficult time, one of the few things that kept Daphne going was the hope she’d get into FIU. When there was enough gasoline to spare, Daphne would drive an hour to a parking lot near the capital — one of the only places she’d get a signal on her phone — to check if her acceptance letter arrived. One day, it did. 

Under the guidance of Krishnaswamy Jayachandran, Diego Salazar Amoretti and Amir Khoddamzadeh, Daphne conducted groundbreaking research using one of the world’s most underappreciated recyclers: earthworms. She discovered vermicompost — earthworm waste — is a sustainable, cheap and affordable solution to pesticides that helps plants make chemical changes to repel pests.

Next, Daphne will pursue a Ph.D. in natural resources management at FIU and continue conducting research that benefits both people and the environment.

By Angela Nicoletti

Barbara M. Sorondo — PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, School of Education and Human Development

Barbara Sorondo

For many people conducting research in the health fields, Barbara M. Sorondo is their first stop.

As the health sciences librarian at FIU, Barbara helps students and faculty from the College of Arts, Science & Education, Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work and the Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing & Health Sciences find sources and data that could inform their own studies.

To further her career, Barbara enrolled in the curriculum and instruction doctoral program focusing on the science, mathematics and learning technologies track. For her dissertation, Barbara researched what students, faculty and librarians each expected of each other during information literacy sessions held at FIU libraries. She learned that students wanted to learn how to access information quickly. Faculty wanted students to learn to use peer-reviewed articles for their research. And librarians wanted students to learn to apply the research skills they learned from course to course. Despite expecting different outcomes, each group achieved the outcomes they all had for each other.

But Barbara might not have become a librarian had it not been for a volunteer stint at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. That’s where she was mentored by medical librarian who helped Barbara discover a passion for librarianship, a career that married Barbara’s interests in reading, research and biomedical science.

By Chrystian Tejedor

Vicky Mir-Rodriguez — Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood Education, School of Education and Human Development

Vicky mir-rodriguez

Vicky Mir-Rodriguez has always been a go-getter. She is an author, business owner, full time student, volunteer, wife and proud mother of two.

Born in Miami to Cuban parents, Vicky learned the value of education at an early age. She was 11 years old when her parents founded AcadeMir Preschool. Growing up,Vicky would spend her spring, summer and holiday breaks at the school. Today, she spends her days at AcadeMir. Vicky and her husband own AcadeMir Preschool. 

Vicky started as a journalism major at FIU and interned at NBC and Telemundo. She also volunteered for Radio Lollipop, the radio station based within Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. That’s when she decided working with children was her calling and switched to FIU’s Early Childhood Education Program. 

Vicky discovered a passion for writing while taking an emergent literacy course with professor Silvia La Villa. She credits La Villa and Professor Elizabeth Altare  for teaching her to love the art of education. But her family is the impetus behind her determination to succeed. Her husband has supported her every step of her journey to becoming a published author and college graduate. Vicky says her degree is a testament to her daughters, showing them that they never have to settle for anything less than what they dream to be.

After graduation, Vicky wants to pursue two master’s degrees — one from FIU in curriculum and instruction and the other from Harvard’s School of Extended Studies in journalism.

By Ayleen Barbel Fattal

Amanda Rodriguez — Master of Science in Higher Education Administration, School of Education and Human Development

Amanda Rodriguez

Disability comes in all shapes and forms. Amanda Rodriguez is working to make the lives of those with disabilities easier. Her passion is personal. Her father was a camp counselor for kids with disabilities and her mother worked with special education students.

Amanda left Miami to attend college in Connecticut. Working three jobs and juggling school work, she felt exhausted and started to get migraines. She started seeing shadows and also developed strange spasms in her body. Doctors couldn’t diagnose the symptoms. Turns out, they were signs of a stroke.

In 2014, Amanda had two strokes simultaneously. In the hospital, she was diagnosed with Dr. Hughes syndrome, an autoimmune condition that affects the way blood cells clot. She returned to Miami and was admitted to Jackson Memorial. She learned she had Lupus, as well as three other autoimmune diseases.

Despite these challenges, Amanda wanted to continue her studies. She transferred to FIU and started volunteering at FIU’s Disability Resource Center (DRC) and FIU Embrace. At DRC, Amanda was a part of an initiative to enhance accessibility on campus for students with disabilities.

At FIU, Amanda also reconnected with a high school friend and it was love at first sight. Today, they are engaged and planning on growing their family.

Amanda is looking toward the future, not looking back. After graduation, Amanda will continue volunteering to provide her knowledge, expertise and experience and dreams of working for FIU’s DRC.

By Nathalie Medina

Frances Zengotita — Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, Bachelor of Arts in English, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

Frances Zengotita

Frances Zengotita always dreamed of being a scientist. Her father inspired this love. After he became ill and passed away when she was in 8th grade that love went away. As much as she wanted to honor her father and her childhood dream, studying science became a painful reminder of him.  

At FIU, Frances decided to study English. During her second semester, she read Silent Spring — a groundbreaking novel by Rachel Carson that brought attention to the harmful effects of pesticides on humans and the environment. It reignited her passion for science. Frances realized she wanted to promote environmental awareness and conduct environmental chemistry research. She decided to pursue chemistry as a second major.

Frances was a Department of Energy Fellow, a program that supports the largest environmental cleanup challenge in the world – working towards safe disposal of the nation’s legacy radioactive waste. Her research focused on tracking the transport of radioactive waste, in order to update risk assessment models and prevent the release of harmful nuclear waste into the environment.

She has two peer-reviewed publications, including a publication in Chemosphere, in which she’s listed as the first author. A McNair scholar, Frances has presented her research at national conferences. She’s also received more than 12 honors or awards, including the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and the American Chemical Society Scholars Program.  

After graduation, Frances will pursue her Ph.D. in Chemistry.  

By Nathalie Medina

Starlie Belnap — PhD in Psychology, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

Starlie Belnap

Star Belnap put her education on hold to start her family and raise her three sons. As her boys grew up, Star finished her bachelor’s degree in Idaho. At 38 years old, she moved her family across the country to study at FIU.

Star was driven to understand the unknowable. She wanted to see how the time a child spent in their mother’s womb affects motor coordination after birth. So, she turned to quail for answers.

As the small game birds developed behind their protective eggshell, Star could ethically control their exposure to movement, light, temperature and sound. The insights Star gained from these tiny birds will inform additional research on mammals and could one day provide insights into how the movement, language, cognitive ability and school readiness of children are all influenced by their nine months in the womb.

Pursuing her doctoral degree and conducting this research was a balancing act. In her first conversation with psychology professors Robert Lickliter and Eliza Nelson, Star made one thing clear: family comes first.

At FIU, Star trained 25 undergraduate researchers to help with parts of her research. At home, she focused on her children until they went to bed and she could study some more. Sundays were for family.

Just two months before commencement, Star, 43, accepted a clinical research administrator position at Baptist Health. She is applying what she learned at FIU to help improve outcomes for people who have had strokes, epilepsy or spinal injuries.

By Chrystian Tejedor

Bianca Maderal — Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

Bianca Maderal was in her high school Spanish class talking to a friend when she suddenly had a seizure. Rushed to the hospital, Bianca underwent hundreds of medical exams, including a 7-inch craniotomy biopsy. The doctors diagnosed her with stage three brain cancer — one of the rarest and most aggressive forms typically found in 30-to-50-year-olds. In her brain, she had eight tumors.

Bianca Maderal

After traveling across the U.S. in search of treatment, Bianca moved to Baltimore for her initial radiation and chemotherapy treatments at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Determined to not be afraid of cancer, Bianca completed high school online and graduated with her class. After eight weeks of treatment at Johns Hopkins, she returned to Miami and enrolled at Miami Dade College. She balanced going to class while undergoing chemotherapy.

In the months after her diagnosis, Bianca created Fight Like A Kid. Through her nonprofit, Bianca sends care packages to hospitals with pediatric cancer units, while organizing fundraisers for research and clinical trials. She also hosts local parties for patients in the hospital and participates in toy drives.

Bianca is graduating with a 3.9 GPA. She’s also a member of Psi Chi, Phi Beta Kappa and the Golden Key Honor Society.

Today, seven of Bianca’s eight tumors are gone. After graduation, she wants to attend FIU’s new program in natural and applied sciences and dreams of becoming a pediatric oncologist to help children battling cancer. She also wants to continue her work with Fight Like A Kid.

By Nathalie Medina

Take a look at Past Worlds Ahead Graduates.