Among the nearly 8,000 students graduating this spring, three extraordinary first-generation students stand out for their ability to overcome difficult circumstances and aspiration to help make a difference for those who have also faced hardships.
Eliany Torrez Pon’s road to graduation did not come easy. Pon fled civil war in Nicaragua with her family when she was a child and lived as an undocumented immigrant, until gaining status through DACA at the age of 17, according to a UCF press release.
Despite not qualifying for financial aid, she insisted to pursue a degree in nursing with some financial help from her family, according to the press release.
But her hopes to continue her college education seemed grim. Her grandmother became ill with ovarian cancer, and because her family members could not travel to see her because of their status, her family sent $2,000 – intended for Pon’s college – to pay for her grandmother’s medical bills.
Pon was the recipient of a $2,000 College of Nursing scholarship, allowing her to continue school and participate in undergraduate research, according to the press release. Pon researched the challenges undocumented people face in the healthcare system.
Pon is all too familiar with this, having herself faced hardships in finding a place to treat herself and her family when she was growing up as an undocumented immigrant, according to the press release. In her studies, she found that gaps in knowledge, language barriers, perceived discrimination, a lack of resources and high costs of care all contribute to the undocumented community being severely underserved in medical care, according to the press release.
She intends to raise awareness to the healthcare challenges faced by undocumented immigrants, and graduated with honors on Friday. She has accepted a job as a nurse at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando.
Another extraordinary first-generation student, Felix Sosa, graduated Thursday with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. He has already accepted a research job at Harvard psychology department and MIT’s Center for Brains, Minds and Machines, according to the press release.
Sosa overcame the odds, living in an environment not conducive to success. He grew up near Miami with a mother addicted to opioids, according to the press release. After being encouraged by his high school counselor to attend college, he decided to use his experiences as a motivator to understand how the mind works.
At MIT and Harvard, Sosa is now using a combination of experiments and computer science to build machines that learn and think like people, according to the press release. Sosa also wants to help inspire those who might live through a similar situation to what
he was in.
“I feel I have a political duty to become a professor so I can help shape the next generation of scientists. I want to reduce the lack of representation, and show those who may grow up in bad upbringings that there are opportunities for them, too,” Sosa said.
Another exceptional student is a professional musician and Puerto Rican native, who managed to inspire others with her song “Isla Del Cordero.” Arleen Ramirez, 43, received a master’s degree in music on Thursday, according to the press release. While pursuing her degree at UCF, she watched the devastation caused by hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where most of her family still lived.
During the first weeks after the storm, Ramirez was overcome by worry because she was unable to reach her family to know if they were okay. She used the song as an outlet for her emotions, the press release said.
Working with other Puerto Rican musicians, including internationally known pianist Adlan Cruz and Ismael Miranda, Ramirez created a song that combines tropical rhythms, salsa and a range of emotions from concern and hope for the island. Her music went on to represent New Jersey-based The Hands Foundation, which aims to provide aid to Puerto Rico, the press release said.
It has been a difficult road for her, living away from family English not being her first language. Despite those difficulties, she plans to continue her path and pursue a doctorate degree to be able to teach at a university, according to the press release. She also has a private singing studio where she intends to continue teaching and performing, possibly inspiring others.