When it comes to student success, drawing a representative picture of the talent in a particular graduating class isn’t easy. Out of more than 1,000 candidates for a degree in December 2021, a few individuals rose to the top as examples of achievement that helped define FGCU’s newly minted class of alums. All of these Eagles have one thing in common: They made the most of their opportunity.
Just ask Eunice Brevil.
In September, she signed a yearlong contract with Lee County Schools to teach a third-grade class at Franklin Park Elementary School in Fort Myers. As an education major, Brevil applied to be part of the requirement-laden Student Teacher Advanced Recruitment (STAR) program. This made her a full-time teacher before she earned her degree.
Originally from Broward County, Brevil always knew she wanted to be a teacher. Initially, she wasn’t sure FGCU was the right spot for her, but that changed. The STAR program helped her make an important life decision.
“I feel home here,” she said about Fort Myers. “I see myself continuing at Franklin Park. I have one of the best mentors in the district. Learning from her and being in the classroom and getting that experience, it doesn’t get any better.”
According to the Florida Education Association, there were 4,961 teaching vacancies in the state as of August. Despite challenges facing teachers, from pay to the pandemic, Brevil is happy with her decision. She’s living proof that programs like STAR can help fill openings in local school systems.
“Some people might look at the stress [that comes with teaching] and decide they can’t do it. But, I look at it like, ‘I want to do this. I’m going to do this, and I’m going to try my best to do it.’”
Finding the best fit
Like Brevil, some students don’t think they have initially found a “home” at FGCU. That was the case for Michaela Clarke. A bad experience with chemistry almost caused her to leave higher education altogether.
“My first semester didn’t go so well,” said Clarke, who was returning to college after a three-year break since earning an associate degree. “I took my first chemistry exam, and I really failed it. I thought, ‘Well, this doesn’t seem like it’s going to be for me.’”
Luckily, Clarke found the right mentor in chemistry instructor Sari Paikoff.
“I shed a lot of tears in her office that week,” said Clarke, a recipient of the Susanne and Larry Pickering First Generation Scholarship. “Dr. Paikoff said she saw a lot of potential in me, and she knew I could work hard.”
That was all the motivation the Jamaican-born student needed. Clarke went from being a failed chemistry student to an instructional assistant in the department. She also participated in the Student-Faculty Partnership Program with the Lucas Center for Faculty Development. The program pairs students with a faculty partner. Together, they work to improve the way a particular course is taught.
Bill Reynolds, who leads the program, said, “Michaela has participated in this program for several semesters and, as a student, she has unusual maturity and a real depth of insight about teaching and learning at FGCU.”
That maturity is presenting itself as Clarke applies to graduate schools to continue her studies in forensic science. No matter where she goes, the alumna won’t forget FGCU.
“I don’t think I could have accomplished everything without having such an excellent support system and community,” Clark said.
Hard work pays off
Lily Boone also found people at FGCU who had her back as she earned her finance degree. The mom of two is from Vietnam. At 17, with only a ninth-grade education, she started her own business importing clothing from western countries to her homeland. She continued to support that business as she moved to the U.S.
“I worked my way to earning a high school diploma,” said Boone, who learned to speak English after arriving in the States. She enrolled at a university in Nevada, but her husband’s job relocated the couple to Naples. While she was raising her children and running her business, which is still operating today, Boone earned her bachelor’s.
Degree in hand, she now plans to study for the Chartered Financial Analyst exam and look for a job in her field. More than anything, Boone wants her story told. She believes it will help others who find themselves in a similar situation.
“If they work hard enough and believe in themselves, they can achieve their dreams. Even though it’s not an easy road ahead, if they work hard, nothing can stop them.”
Boone’s sentiments are all too familiar to Viktoriya Bardenova. The Bulgarian-born FGCU graduate became a superstar in the mathematics department. Consider this statement from a student in a calculus course where Bardenova was a learning assistant: “She behaves and teaches just like a professional teacher would. I understand everything she teaches perfectly.”
Praise like that is nice but also makes one wonder where Bardenova might be if her original plans worked out. In 2004, she was slated to start school at a noted university in the U.S. But, according to one of her professors, “They made an error with her immigration paperwork, and she lost a promised scholarship.” As a result, Bardenova pushed back her higher education plans, took a job and learned a second language—English. She also started a family.
Katie Johnson, an FGCU mathematics professor, wrote, “Perhaps it is because I started college just the year before [her] that Viktoriya feels more like a colleague to me. If life had been fairer, she and I might have been at the same graduate program or working in the same department now.”
Forever the pragmatist, Bardenova doesn’t see the delay as wasted time. She is looking forward.
“It is what it is,” she said. “There are some things that cannot be changed. But I’m kind of behind. So, now, I’m trying to do everything possible to get back on track.”
Bardenova is applying to graduate school with plans to earn her Ph.D. soon after.
“I have a passion to teach eventually. I want to help people like myself,” said Bardenova, an Elizabeth N. Barrick Scholarship recipient.
Even though FGCU was not part of her original plans, it became the perfect place to help her achieve the mathematics degree she always wanted.
“I cried when I moved my tassel from right to left,” Bardenova said of her experience at Grad Walk. “I love FGCU. I felt very welcome, and I feel very fortunate that I got to study at FGCU.”
A path inspired by life
Like some of his classmates, December 2021 grad Bryan Ortega knows the challenges of learning a new language. His family moved to the U.S. from Colombia, and Ortega grew up speaking Spanish with his mother and grandmother. His bond with the latter and her health issues helped set him on a path to FGCU’s Marieb College of Health & Human Services.
“We were constantly in and out of clinics,” Ortega said. “I was in middle school when I first had to learn how to give her insulin and take her blood pressure.”
Helping his grandmother gave him access to her providers. He would ask them questions about medications and treatments. His interest in medicine grew, leading him to earn a degree in health science.
“I do fully intend on applying this year to medical school,” Ortega said.
The first-generation college student has already been accepted to the University of South Florida’s master’s in public health program, which includes a concentration in global infectious disease. Ortega clearly is an attractive candidate for schools and employers, but that’s only one facet of his accomplishments.
“Ever since I was young, I was always fascinated by language and culture,” he said. “When I was in middle school, I wanted to learn French, so I started self learning. In high school, I was able to take a few French courses and participate in a study abroad. When I got to college, I ended up minoring in French.”
It’s easy to imagine a future where “Dr. Ortega” returns to Southwest Florida prepared to work in public health. Ortega says he wants to focus on helping vulnerable populations. Think about the good he’ll be able to do, and then add in the fact that he’s trilingual. For an area rich in people who speak English, Spanish or French-based languages found in Haiti, Ortega may be just what the doctor ordered.