CASE Spring 2021 Real Triumphs Graduates

A diverse group of men and women in background, nationality, interests and ambitions, these individuals are shining examples of what makes FIU students so special. They have accomplished extraordinary things during their time at the university — often against great odds — and have shown us what it means to be truly REAL TRIUMPHS.

Meet the CASE Spring 2021 Real Triumphs Graduates:

Elizabeth Aguila Ph.D. in Teaching and Learning, School of Education and Human Development

Elizabeth Aguila

Elizabeth Aguila started getting terrible headaches in her mid-20s, while she was an exceptional education (ESE) teacher at Barbara Goldman Senior High School.

Doctors discovered lesions on her brain. The diagnosis: multiple sclerosis. Prescribed medications that produced different side effects, Elizabeth tried to navigate her new reality of what she couldn’t or shouldn’t do anymore.

One thing she thought was impossible was pursuing a doctoral degree. Her disease could progress and worsen with stress. She only took the leap of faith because of her network of supportive family, frienddocs and mentors, including FIU Director of the Office of Clinical Experiences Judith Cohen and FIU Associate Professor and Reading Program Director Joyce Fine.

Elizabeth’s research looked at how teacher preparatory programs in high schools affect teacher identity — or how students see themselves as teachers and their motivation to become teachers. The journey was difficult. On the days she didn’t feel well, she didn’t work on her study, and took advantage of the days she felt better to make progress on her research. Determined and focused, she completed her 180-page dissertation in two and a half months.

Today, Elizabeth is a teacher at Hialeah Gardens High School — where she started an academy of education that is part of a Career and Technical Education program that prepares high school students for careers in education through an on-campus preschool.

Now, Elizabeth is ready for the next step of her journey. She dreams of working in higher education and continuing to do research.

By Angela Nicoletti

David Berthold — Ph.D. in Biological Sciences, School of Environment, Arts and Society

David Berthold

When David Erwin Berthold set out to find ways to combat the climate crisis, he didn’t expect a billions-of- years-old organism could be part of the solution.

Algae compounds are found in everything from toothpaste to health supplements and alternative sources of fuel, and have countless uses for people. Algae also does a lot of good for the planet by absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.

Under the mentorship of FIU Professor Evelyn Gaiser, David experimented with different ways to increase the growth rate of algae for mass cultivation. He’s discovered and named previously unknown types and published 27 peer-reviewed journal articles. While working on his doctorate, David also worked full-time as a lab manager and scientist in Dail Laughinghouse’s lab at the University of Florida Institute of Agricultural Sciences (UF- IFAS) research and education center.

Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Berthold moved to the U.S. when he was 10. Always interested in biology, one of the first gifts he remembers receiving was a microscope. Hair, soil, anything he could get his hands on, he would put under the lens.

After graduating with his bachelor’s in biological sciences from FIU, David had the opportunity to join Miroslav Gantar’s lab at FIU, where he first fell in love with growing algae. After earning his master’s, it was only natural to pursue his Ph.D. to continue his research.

David plans to continue conducting research, growing algae to remove atmospheric carbon dioxide, providing biologically important compounds, and working to combat toxic algae blooms. He’d like to start his own company to grow the algae he discovers. He already has the name — VivAlgae!

By Angela Nicoletti

Natalia Del Valle-Agosto —Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

Natalia Del Valle-Agosto

In 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, damaging thousands of homes – including Natalia Del Valle-Agosto’s. Thanks to the FIUstrong program, which assists students impacted by disasters, Del Valle moved to FIU. Despite the overwhelming and abrupt change, she made the best of it, enrolled the following semester and found a new home as an FIU Panther.

Natalia instantly became an active member of the FIU community. She joined FIU’s Honors College, became a learning assistant for a psychology introductory course and a resident assistant at Everglades Hall, and joined the care staff at the FIU Wellness and Recreation Center and as well as the Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law fraternity.

She also participated in the Faculty Innovation for Student Success Showcase and even traveled to Washington, D.C. to represent FIU at the Worlds Ahead Fly-In for Futures of Water and Coastal Economies. In the midst of the global pandemic, Natalia returned to Puerto Rico to help care for immediate family – all while maintaining a 4.0 GPA.

Natalia is graduating with her bachelor’s in psychology, a minor in philosophy and a certificate in music business. After graduating, she will be attending the University of Puerto Rico’s Law School to pursue a career in law but knows that FIU will always be her home.

By Emily Castellanos

Lori Ann Gionti — Ed.D. in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, School of Education and Human Development College of Arts, Sciences & Education

Lori Ann Gionti

Lori Ann Gionti first learned about orphaned children in middle school. She remembers thinking it was an injustice to grow up without a parent and started volunteering at local homes for foster children.

That spark continued through high school and early college. Eventually, it became her passion. So much so that Lori and her husband have adopted seven children over the course of 10 years – some she adopted as toddlers and are now between the ages of 21 and 31.

Lori has juggled multiple roles over the years, including business owner, daughter, sister, wife, student, and advocate. In her spare time, she taught licensing and continuing education classes to foster parents. She decided to pursue a master’s in education at Barry University to develop better teaching skills.

At FIU, Lori has conducted research on issues within foster care, foster parent training and professional development, as well as higher education for students who were formerly in foster care.

For over three decades, Lori has also volunteered with the child welfare system in Broward County — and now her children are following in her footsteps. The Gionti family was recognized as Hurricane Heroes by the Broward County Board of Commissioners for their volunteer work.

Lori considers this degree a culmination of both her profession and her longtime passion. She plans to continue her advocacy work as well as transition to a faculty position.

By Giselle Cancio

Jennifer Houston — Ph.D. in Psychology: Industrial-Organizational Psychology, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

Jennifer Houston

Jennifer Houston, a third generation FIU Panther, is a proud adjunct in the Psychology department at FIU. She is also someone who went from a GED to a Ph.D., despite significant challenges.

When she was 8, Jennifer’s parents divorced, and she and her mother became homeless and lived out of their car. Jennifer cherished her time at school, both because of her early interest in academics and because school offered her running water, electricity and a meal each day.

At 13, the bullying began, and Jennifer suffered her first panic attack. Shortly after, she was placed in a hospital homebound program. Her anxiety and agoraphobia were so severe that she was unable to leave the house.

She dropped out of school but her passion for education motivated her to never give up. She earned her GED and took the SAT, and at 17, she started at FIU and eventually graduated Summa Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She was also a Ronald E. McNair fellow.

Jennifer has never let anything stand in her way. In 2011, she returned to FIU to earn a Ph.D. in Industrial Organization Psychology. Her research combines work from cognitive psychology and industrial- organizational psychology to examine how traumatic events affect employees’ memories of the workplace.

Jennifer wants to take what she’s learned and overcome to help people like her make the transition into the next phase in their life and navigate the workforce while still addressing mental health issues from their past. This fall, she will begin FIU’s master’s degree program in clinical mental health counseling.

By Christine Calvo

Sakeli Kennedy Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences: Quantifying Biology in the Classroom, School of Environment, Arts and Society

Bachelor of Arts in Chemistry, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

Sakeli Kennedy

Sakeli Kennedy is on a mission to help others. After fitting two bachelor’s degrees and three majors into her four years at FIU, she is already on her way to another milestone: earning a medical degree.

Sakeli attended primary school in Jamaica with friends from all over the world and spent her high school years in St. Petersburg, Florida, absorbing advanced science lessons. For Sakeli, FIU was a place to keep practicing science as part of a diverse community. She enrolled in the intensive Quantifying Biology in the Classroom program, then joined the Honors College so she could take extra classes. She also became a tutor, a role she continued into upper-level courses and her second degree in chemistry.

Research and service took Sakeli around the Americas. She examined bleached corals in Miami, parsed DNA code to identify disease markers in Minnesota, and went on Alternative Breaks trips to treat sick sea turtles in Costa Rica and help residents of remote communities in Peru. A first-generation university student, Sakeli repaid her parents’ belief in her, helping her mother earn her GED.

Sakeli continues her studies at St. George’s University in Grenada, where she is working to introduce an Alternative Breaks program — this summer, she’s leading a medical service trip to Ghana. She wants to continue helping the underserved and to give pre-med students the kinds of opportunities she’s had.

By Nate Rabner

Ramona Moore — Bachelor of Science in Psychology, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

Ramona Moore

At 41, Ramona Moore had two heart valve replacements and suffered a stroke. Before the year was over, she would lose her vision completely. For the longtime property manager, things were now clear. She had no time left to waste. She knew it was time to complete her education.

Relying on physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy to overcome partial paralysis caused by the stroke, Ramona learned to navigate her way through life again thanks to the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind. Then she returned to Miami Dade College to complete an associate’s before enrolling at FIU.

While studying psychology at FIU, Ramona was still finding her career path. There was a time she thought about pursuing a career in industrial and occupational psychology. Then, she heard Rehabilitation Counseling Associate Professor Valerie Russell describe how people in the rehabilitation counseling field help those with disabilities find work and lead productive lives.

Ramona reflected on all the people who have helped her along her journey — the one she began after 2015. Since she had been through the system herself, she knew where it fell short.

Ramona graduated with a bachelor’s in psychology in 2020. She’s now enrolled in the Rehabilitation Counseling master’s program. And when she graduates, she’s confident she can help others with disabilities find work and lead fulfilling lives. After all, she did it herself.

By Chrystian Tejedor

Rudramani Pokhrel — Ph.D. in Physics, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

Rudramani Pokhrel

While the COVID-19 pandemic essentially shut down the planet for almost a year, Rudramani Pokhrel and his fellow researchers at FIU were hard at work searching for an already FDA-approved drug that could hopefully stop the coronavirus in its tracks – or at least slow it down.

Using computer modeling, Rudramani; Prem Chapagain, a physics professor and associate director for FIU’s Biomolecular Sciences Institute; and biology professor Jessica Liberles identified several drug candidates worthy of further investigation.  His study was published in the journal J. Med Microbiology in 2020 and quickly garnered more than 23 citations.

Long before the pandemic was on anyone’s radar, Rudramani was already battling antibiotic resistant illnesses. He studied a unique class of antimicrobial peptides — called lantibiotics — that represent a large, untapped pipeline of antibiotics. Along with Chapagain and Physics Professor Bernard Gerstman, they collaborated with Oragenics Inc., a company that develops lantibiotic peptides with unique properties that antibiotic-resistant bacteria cannot overcome.

Today, Rudramani is using similar methods to find and exploit weaknesses in cancer as a postdoctoral researcher at All Children’s Hospital at Johns Hopkins University. Rudramani hopes that the combination of experiences he received at FIU — in physics, biology and chemistry — will one day help him stamp out cancer and cure other diseases at a faster rate.

By Chrystian Tejedor

Susana Rondon — Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies, School of Environment, Arts and Society

Bachelor of Science in Anthropology/Sociology, Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs

Susana Rondon believes she was born to serve.

Before her birth, doctors encouraged her parents – and particularly her mother, a cancer survivor – to end the high-risk pregnancy. They told them Susana would have Down Syndrome and a slew of other health conditions. Inspired by her Christian faith, Susana’s mother decided to give her baby a chance at life. Susana was born completely healthy, and her mother was also unharmed.

Susana said that if she’s a miracle, it’s time for her to pay it forward. This guides her every action – including at FIU.

Through the Honors College and Alternative Breaks, Susana volunteered as a site leader during a mission trip to Suriname, where she learned about the country’s coastal degradation, planted mangroves to ameliorate the situation and helped repair a community center for disabled children. She also studied abroad in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where she taught English to educators and helped raise funds for a project providing clean drinking water to low-income communities.

Susana also became a leader in the student organization Students Taking Initiative Through Collaboration in Honors (STITCH), which organizes seminars and networking and volunteer opportunities for pre-med students.

In 2018, she began working full-time as the Honors College’s office associate and juggled her job with online or evening classes. She is a proud first-generation college student.

After graduating, she plans to pursue a master’s in environmental studies at FIU and bring to fruition several business ideas.

She says all her success is ultimately her mom’s success – and she dedicates all her hard work to her mom.

By Gisela Valencia

Melinda Spitzer — Bachelor of Arts in Women’s & Gender Studies, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

Melinda Spitzer

It’s never too late to achieve your dream of getting an education, as Melinda Spitzer, 66, demonstrates.

Melinda, a first-generation college graduate, began her college journey at age 18. Her life’s circumstances meant she had to take classes little by little. Throughout her adult life, much of her time was spent heavily involved in the lesbian and feminist movements. Following the Stonewall Riots, New York was a hotbed of protests in which Spitzer was a “proud participant.” She volunteered at the historic “Lesbian Switchboard,” a peer-run hotline in New York.

She was an active member of The Gay Activist Alliance, the Lesbian Feminist Liberation, and many more. She remains an active member of the lesbian-feminist community in Miami. Over the years, she has mentored many lesbian and gay youth in the community and beyond.

At age 53, Spitzer was diagnosed with the same spinal disease as her father, which can cause temporary paralysis. She has undergone five spinal operations, the most recent in July 2019. Her condition required her to retire from her previous position as a senior technologist of mammography at Mercy Hospital. But it turned out to be an opportunity to pursue her true dream–to combine her experience in mammography and passion for women’s issues.

Melinda’s surgeon limited her to one class per semester and no summer classes, but she worked closely with FIU’s Disability Resource Center and her faculty mentors to conquer these challenges and complete her education.

She first enrolled at FIU in 2008, graduated in spring 2020 – Summa Cum Laude and as a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society – and will celebrate at commencement in Spring 2021. After graduation, Spitzer plans to work at a non-profit organization that supports patients with breast cancer.

By Morgan Hughes

Christina Velazquez — Bachelor of Science in Women’s and Gender Studies, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

Bachelor of Science in Political Science, Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs

Christina Velazquez

An award-winning FIU student athlete, Christina Velazquez has worked hard to balance her many roles, including serving as an NCAA Division 1 soccer team member, and most importantly, an activist.

She coordinated FIU’s food drive for the NCAA “Soccer United Against Hunger” Initiative to combat food insecurity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, providing donations to Feeding South Florida and the Miami Workers Center. She also participated as a member in the Florida Speakers Bureau, where she educated the local community about systemic issues including racism, women’s health and LGBTQ concerns. She lobbied at the Florida Capitol for women’s health and access and served as a Women’s and Public Policy Intern for the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda: LatinasRepresent.

As the youngest of three daughters, Christina credits her family for igniting her drive and focus through nightly discussions of political and social issues at the family’s dinner table. At FIU, Christina worked as a research assistant at the Jorge M. Perez Metropolitan Center. She is an FIU Truman Scholarship finalist, received the Conference USA Academic Medal two years in a row, and was awarded the FIU Ambassador Merit Scholarship and the FIU Blue and Gold Coach’s Award.

Christina plans to spend a year volunteering to solve public interest issues, then return to Miami to pursue a law degree. Eventually she hopes to lead change in her West Kendall community as a public interest lawyer working to provide access to resources, education and equity for her neighbors.

By Alexandra Bassil

Take a look at Past Real Triumphs graduates, formally known as Worlds Ahead Graduates, here.