Worlds Ahead Graduates

World’s Ahead Graduate Nomination Form

Fall 2013

Ceremony 1


Vecino AyxaAyxa Vecino
Master’s, Global Strategic Communication
School of Journalism & Mass Communication

When Ayxa Vecino was 10, she befriended a very ill boy. His parents, touched by her compassion, gave her a savings bond to thank her. The gratitude they expressed cemented her belief that everyday actions matter. As an undergraduate in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, she was inducted into the Order of the Torch for her service to FIU and graduated summa cum laude, with a 4.0 GPA within her school.

Just days into her first graduate semester she was diagnosed with Crohn’s colitis, a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract. Ayxa found herself balancing her studies, her job at FIU and treatment options. It took a year to find the right balance of treatments to control her disease. This fall, Ayxa receives her master’s degree in Global Strategic Communications with the highest GPA in her program.

Throughout her medical challenges, Ayxa remained committed to service. As part of her FIU job, she is actively involved with the First Generation Scholarship Fund, the United Way campaign and TEDxFIU. As a student, she assisted with research on HIV/AIDS stigma among minorities and conducted a study on the globalization of multicultural communications. But it was her illness that inspired her final master’s project, which focused on raising awareness about Crohn’s disease among Hispanics. She plans to present her findings to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.


Natacha Galindo-Lopez

Natacha Galindo-Lopez
Bachelor’s, Geosciences
College of Arts and Sciences

Natacha Galindo-Lopez was a young girl when she first saw the film “Twister,” which follows two weather researchers chasing tornadoes through Oklahoma. Fascinated by the beauty and unpredictability of weather, she knew she wanted a career in meteorology.

After enrolling at FIU in 2010, Natacha chose to major in geosciences with an atmospheric science track. As an undergraduate, she was a math tutor at Miami-Dade College and the first learning assistant at FIU to teach two subjects during one semester – geology and math. The following semester, she taught chemistry and was later promoted to teaching assistant for general chemistry.

The summer before her senior year, Natacha served as a weather intern for WSVN Channel 7. She was responsible for analyzing weather charts; generating text and graphics for the broadcast segments; and managing the station’s social media pages with continuous weather updates. After three months of interning, Natacha was offered a part-time position and has been the morning weather producer since 2012. A typical work day for Natacha starts at 3 a.m.

Natacha is currently working on a research project with Professor Hugh Willoughby from the Department of Earth and Environment. Titled “The Future of Weather Forecasting in South Florida,” the researchers are finding ways to simplify weather terminology; make graphics and other visuals more eye-catching; and improve forecast accuracy.

Upon graduating, Natacha plans to pursue a graduate degree in meteorology.


Pilar Larsen

Pilar Montoya-Larssen
Bachelor’s, Liberal Studies
College of Arts and Sciences

Pilar Montoya-Larssen first enrolled at FIU in 1988 to pursue a double major in elementary education and special education.

She was just six credits away from earning her degree when she had to put her studies on hold. She had to save four months of rent so she could complete a four-month teaching internship with Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Then, she says, “life happened.” She was offered a full-time position. She got married and had three children. Years passed and Pilar had worked as an advertising professional, collections manager, realtor and small-business owner.

Facing an unstable job market and a divorce, Pilar was encouraged by her family to complete the degree she had started 25 years ago. When she returned to campus, Pilar met with a liberal studies program advisor, Badger Embry, who, she said made her “feel that, 20 years later, I was still important to the university and they would do whatever it took to get me to graduate.”

Facing the “hardest year” of her studies, Pilar moved back in to her mother’s home with her children and enrolled as a full-time student in 2011. Determined to lead by example and show her children to finish what you start, Pilar is graduating with a 3.8 GPA.

Upon graduating, Pilar plans on pursuing a graduate degree in business or real estate.

Ceremony 2


Abraham Grimaldo
Master’s, Accounting
College of Business

At age 15, Abraham Grimaldo arrived in the United States from Venezuela. He could not read, write, or understand English. He studied day and night, and in a span of a little over a year, mastered the English language. It was the start of an academic career characterized by drive and achievement.

Abraham transferred to FIU from Broward College in 2010 to pursue a Bachelor of Accounting. Eager to excel inside and outside the classroom, he joined Beta Alpha Psi, the accounting, finance and MIS honor society, becoming the chapter president for the spring 2012 semester. During Abraham’s presidency, he expanded both the organization’s membership base and its professional development activities. He also served as the director of finance for the Executive Business Leadership Board, an organization of College of Business student leaders who also excel in academics. His goal: to encourage more student participation in on-campus professional service organizations.

After graduating Summa Cum Laude with his bachelor’s, Abraham took on the Master of Accounting degree, passing all necessary exams for the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) designations. After completing an internship with Grant Thornton LLP, he has accepted a position with the global accounting firm upon graduation.

Abraham is an active volunteer at United Way and Feeding South Florida. He credits accounting faculty member Jimmy Carmenate as a mentor throughout his time at FIU.

Kathy Eow

Kathy Eow
Master’s, Hospitality Management
Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management

Growing up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Kathy Eow never imagined that her studies would take her to Myanmar. They did that and more. As an FIU graduate student, under the mentorship of Professor Carolin Lusby, Kathy traveled to Mawlamyine, a town in southeastern Myanmar, to present the concept of community-based tourism to local residents during town hall meetings organized with the help of a local English teacher. Community-based tourism is a form of sustainable tourism that allows visitors to connect closely with the communities they visit. She met and spoke in-depth with residents and tourism stakeholders about their perceptions of tourism and community-based tourism in Mawlamyine, and was the first foreigner most local people had ever met.

During her time at FIU, Kathy served on the executive board of the National Society for Minorities in Hospitality, received the 2013 Building Bridges Award from the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association Foundation and was inducted into Eta Sigma Delta, the international hospitality management honor society. She was also selected to present her research at the upcoming Athens Institute for Education and Research annual conference.

Kathy previously worked for the U.S. government processing immigrant visa applications, independently studied international humanitarian law while working as a library assistant at the Yale Law Library, and traveled to Kenya as an HIV/AIDS outreach volunteer.

After graduation, Kathy hopes to work as a sustainable tourism development consultant.


Kendra DeSantana
Bachelor’s, Hospitality Management
Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management

To say that Kendra de Santana’s appetite for hospitality management is insatiable is an understatement- she is extremely passionate about food and cooking and her ultimate goal is to be a chef. Perhaps what is most remarkable about Kendra, who was born and raised in Queens, NY, is that being in a wheelchair has never slowed her down. She has made the decision to pursue what she loves, and is overcoming every obstacle in her path to do so.

Since the start of her coursework at the Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, Kendra became very involved in the culinary world. She worked two South Beach Wine & Food Festivals (last year she worked with renowned celebrity chef Bobby Flay) and was the first student to work the liquid nitrogen-made ice cream station at two recent charity events.

With her mentor Chef Mark D’Alessandro’s help, she landed an internship with the nonprofit organization Feeding South Florida, where she assisted with distributing food to needy residents of Miami-Dade and Broward counties. The internship and her passion for fooed allowed her to help people in need. It was an inspirational and life changing experience. She credits D’Alessandro with motivating her to achieve her full potential.

Upon graduation, she looks forward to continuing to work with food-related nonprofit organizations.


Ceremony 3


Joseph Holbrook
Ph.D., History
College of Arts and Sciences

Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Joseph Holbrook spent two years in Bogota, Colombia as an exchange student. He was fascinated by the culture and moved to Miami in 1990 with the intent of pursuing a master’s degree in Latin American studies. Fourteen years later he began that journey at FIU.

Joseph, 62, chose FIU because he loved the international ethos of Miami. He decided to pursue a doctorate in history concentrating on the religious history of Latin America. In 2006, he served as teaching assistant to Professor Sherry Johnson, who guided him every step during his studies.

Joseph accompanied Johnson on a research trip to Cuba in 2009. The trip provided valuable data and contacts for his research on Catholic action groups in Cuba during a singularly important period – the two decades leading up to the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

Several of Joseph’s master’s papers went on to become presentations at major national and international conferences. In November 2010, his paper titled “The Catholic Church in Cuba 1959-62: The Clash of Ideologies” was published in the International Journal of Cuban Studies.

Joseph credits his late wife, Debbie, for giving him strength and encouragement throughout his journey. She was his inspiration and support even as she battled cancer for seven years.

After graduation, Joseph wants to teach undergraduates and inspire his students to become selfless leaders.


Richard Kaufman
Bachelor’s, Sociology and Anthropology
College of Arts and Sciences

Richard Kaufman grew up in the 1970s during the “dark ages” of disability awareness during which no real consideration was given for his potential.

Placed in special education classes at the start of elementary school, Richard was determined to prove others wrong. He graduated from high school in 1985 and immediately enrolled at Miami-Dade College. Never giving up on his life-long dream of higher education, Richard earned his Associate of Art degree in 1999 – nearly 14 years after first starting college.

In 2009, he set his sights on FIU to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Religious Studies Professor Erik Larson describes Richard as a student with keen memory who is well-liked by his peers, passionate about learning and undeterred by any obstacles placed in his path. Richard, who earned a minor in religious studies, even pushed himself harder than most, tackling two languages – Hebrew and Greek – as part of his studies.

Committed to serving his community, Richard has worked in a variety of roles at Shake-a-Leg, earning the accolades “Instructor of the Week” and “Outstanding Volunteer Award” in 2008 and the “Outstanding Employee Award” in 2009. He also completed an internship through FIU’s Upward Bound Program, a program that provides academic preparation, counseling and enrichment activities to youths in South Florida. Richard also works as a poll worker every election for his district in Miami-Dade County.

After graduation, he plans on pursuing a master’s degree in mental health counseling and wants to dedicate his career to helping others.


Ceremony 4

Elena Cyrus

Elena Cyrus
Ph.D., Epidemiology
Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work

Five years ago, after a divorce, Elena Cyrus found herself having to adjust to life as an unemployed single parent struggling to provide for her daughter.

She returned to school after a seven-year absence to pursue a doctorate in epidemiology and restart her career in public health. Elena faced many obstacles, including juggling her personal life with the demands of the Ph.D. program, and financial hardship.

Elena was no stranger to adversity, however. She was born in New York and raised in Trinidad and Tobago by a single mother. Following political unrest, the family returned to the United States. Neither of Elena’s parents went to college, but they motivated Elena and her brother to pursue higher education.

Because of her personal experience with family members’ struggles with substance abuse, Elena’s dissertation and planned post-doctoral training focuses on prevention of substance abuse in marginalized populations. Among her many achievements, under the mentorship of Professor Mary Jo Trepka, Elena has co-authored and published three articles; presented at scientific conferences; and was accepted at the NIH-funded Center for Research on U.S. Latino HIV/AIDS and Drug Abuse (CRUSADA) at FIU as a student trainee.

After graduation Elena will be joining Yale University’s Global Health Equity Scholars program for a two-year Fogarty/NIH-funded post-doctoral training program in Global Health in Lima, Peru.


Jennifer Thomas
Ph.D., Chemistry
College of Arts and Sciences

At just 16 years old, Jennifer Thomas enrolled in the University of the Virgin Islands in her native St. Thomas to study elementary education.

However, she discovered a passion for the complexities of chemistry, particularly forensics, and switched majors.

Pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry at FIU, under the guidance of chemistry professor Bruce McCord, Jennifer helped pioneer a new technique that identifies the chemical signature of the powder inside a bullet, giving law enforcement agencies a new tool to solve cases. This unique process can potentially link a suspect to the ammunition fired even if the weapon is not found. Funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, the project also presents a more specific way to detect and identify residue from bombings.

Among her many achievements, Jennifer has been an invited speaker at several national meetings in her field. At FIU, Jennifer has been a mentor, training many undergraduate students.

Jennifer is the first in her family to obtain a doctoral degree. She and her husband started the IF (Investing in the Future) Scholarship at their high school alma mater in St. Thomas for a graduating senior who will attend college or trade school.

After graduation, Jennifer plans to work as a chemist in a federal or state crime laboratory or as a civilian employee with the military.



Ceremony 5


Valerie J. Diaz
Doctor, Nursing Practice
Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing and Health Sciences

For U.S. Navy Reserve Lieutenant Commander Valerie Diaz, quick decisions have turned into the best ones. She became a social worker after earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and sociology in 1989, but craved the faster pace and contact of working with patients. With that, Valerie left social work and within a month was enrolled in a fast-track nursing program.

She began working as a staff nurse in New York Mt. Sinai Medical Center in 1993 until transferring to Miami Beach Mt. Sinai Medical Center. In August 2001, she enrolled in FIU’s master’s Anesthesiology Nursing Program, but then September 11 happened. The next day she decided to serve her country by joining the U. S. Navy Reserve. With her 2003 Master of Science in Nursing degree in tow, Valerie served as a volunteer nurse anesthetist at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Jacksonville, Fla., ultimately serving active duty as a staff anesthetist at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany tending to injured marines returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Valerie is a staff nurse anesthetist for Anesthesia Associates of Greater Miami; a clinical educator for the University of Miami; and the Nurse Corps Manpower Coordinator overseeing 180 U.S. Navy Reserve nurses serving in the southeast. Now that Valerie has graduated with her Doctor of Nursing Practice degree, she has decided to call upon her experiences as a military health care professional and joined as a visiting professor for FIU’s new Medic-to-Nurse program.


Miriam Mercado
Master’s, International and Intercultural Education
College of Education

Where most people see destruction and chaos, Miriam Mercado sees hope.

Miriam received her bachelor’s in 2011 in international relations and political science from FIU. Her passion to help those in need led her to pursue a Master of Science in international and intercultural education.

When Miriam was 17 one of her friends, Daniel Wultz, was fatally wounded in a 2006 suicide bombing while visiting family in Israel. Because of this tragic event, Miriam traveled to Israel in 2011 to research the strife between Israelis and Palestinians. The experience inspired her research paper, “Dialogue and Peace Education in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict,” which focuses on getting to know one another by breaking down language and cultural barriers.

While in Israel, she met Palestinians and engaged in dialogue, and volunteered in schools for underprivileged children. Miriam says that for a short period of time those students were able to be children—they laughed and played without any worries. She also has lived, worked and contributed to struggling communities in Mexico (her home country), Argentina and the United States.

She credits her mentors Meg Gardinier and Ulrich Oslender with keeping her motivated and focused while juggling a full-time job, school and family.

After graduation Miriam will travel to London as part of a Jewish studies program, and then to Brazil to explore bilingualism and multiculturalism. She also plans to pursue a doctorate degree.


Vivian del Rio
Ed.D., Curriculum and Instruction
College of Education

Isela Rodriguez
Ed.D., Curriculum and Instruction
College of Education

In 1998 Isela Rodriguez’ and Vivian del Rio’s paths crossed while working together toward their specialist degree in education. Fifteen years later, their bond is stronger than ever and their pursuit of higher education has reached a new level— a Doctorate of Education in curriculum and instruction for each of them.

Both Isela and Vivian arrived in the U.S. from Cuba at the age of seven with their families, who instilled in them the importance of education and hard work.

Throughout their doctoral candidacies they have faced many challenges—juggling families, full-time jobs and life—but they never quit. In addition to the love and support they provide for each other, they also found encouragement from Professor Laura Dinehart, who they say was more than a mentor. She was a friend.

While pursuing higher education, they both continued to work full-time and excelled as elementary school teachers in Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Together they also achieved National Board Certification as Middle Childhood Generalists, and have each been nominated by their peers at their schools as “Teacher of the Year” on two different occasions. Isela teaches at Flamingo Elementary, and Vivian at Kensington Park Elementary.

After graduation, Isela plans to teach as an adjunct professor in a higher education institution. And Vivian plans to continue working for M-DCPS.


Ceremony 6

Mame Margerite Tall

Mame Marguerite Tall
Bachelor’s, Finance
Bachelor’s, International Business
College of Business

She has lived on three continents, speaks nearly five languages, and has been awarded the title of Global Change-maker. Clearly, Mame Marguerite Tall is taking the world by storm.

Born in Senegal, Marguerite was valedictorian of her class at SKEMA Business School, an FIU partner school in France. Next stop? FIU’s College of Business, where she achieved a 3.97 GPA while completing two majors.

From a pool of thousands of worldwide activists, Marguerite became a member of the Guildford Forum, a summit for young international activists organized by the British Council under the patronage of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the 2008 World Economic Forum. From this group, she was selected to receive the title of Global Change-maker.

Marguerite’s international community service has included tutoring orphans and other students in Senegal and collecting clothes for the Red Cross in France. She serves as the U.S. representative to the National Association of Albinos of Senegal, an organization that sensitizes the Senegalese community about the reality of albinism.

Marguerite interned with Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, the only international student selected for the Mayor’s Executive Internship Program in Spring 2013. She also interned with Deloitte in Dakar-Senegal and with a Washington-based private equity fund.

She credits Ileana Canizares, student relations coordinator in the College of Business, for exposing her to “thousands of opportunities.”

After graduation, Marguerite wants to secure a job in the financial services industry and earn her master’s degree.


Eduardo Finol
Bachelor’s, Management Information Systems and Finance
College of Business

Working for minimum wage to earn money for college taught Eduardo Finol the value of hard work and the importance of education.

Coming to the U.S. from Venezuela when he was 8 years old, Eduardo witnessed the struggles of his parents and was even homeless for a while following an eviction when the family shipping/distribution business was in trouble.

But Eduardo was determined to make his college dream come true and, while at FIU, worked full-time, in supermarkets and doing back-breaking work on farms. When finishing his management information systems (MIS) courses, he delayed graduation to also earn a degree in finance.

He was selected for several internships, including one where he worked with Santander’s Business Performance group.

In Fall of 2012, Eduardo served as the first vice president of public relations of FIU Toastmasters. A longtime member of ALPFA FIU, he was elected to serve as its vice president of accounting in spring 2013. He also helped pioneer the Mentorship Program in the organization; using his MIS skills, he developed a way to logically match mentors and students.

Eduardo has accepted a position with Pricewaterhouse Coopers in its Risk Assurance practice in Miami. He will be providing IT consulting services.

He thanks senior instructor Nicole Wishart “for great advice on careers – and life.”


Mario Di Giovanni
Bachelor’s, Finance
Bachelor’s, Economics
College of Business

From leading FIU to top finishes at Model United Nations conferences, to helping fellow U.S.-based Venezuelans vote in national elections, Mario Di Giovanni’s passion for international relations and skills as an organizer have made an impact on both the FIU community and the wider world.

A transfer student from Venezuela, from 2011-2013 Mario led a Model UN team that ranked among the top competitors in the U.S., surpassing many Ivy League schools.

In addition to his work as a leader of the Venezuelan Student Alliance at FIU, Mario co-founded VotoDondeSea, an organization dedicated to the promotion of community and voting rights for Venezuelans living abroad. From its beginnings in Miami, the organization is now a worldwide movement, with branches in Orlando, Boston, Toronto, and Madrid, among other cities. Along with his fellow co-founders, he collected donations to take more than 1,500 Venezuelans by bus to New Orleans to vote in the Venezuelan presidential elections. On a study abroad trip to Bangkok, Thailand in December 2012, Mario helped lead the FIU student delegation as it provided assistance to the Baan Chivit Mai Center, a school for underprivileged children.

A member of several academic and honor societies, including Phi Beta Kappa, Order of the Torch, Golden Key, Sigma Alpha Lambda, Mario’s goal is to combine his passions for politics, economics and finance through a career in international development.


Ceremony 7


Daniel Yellin
Bachelor’s, Music
College of Architecture + The Arts

Daniel Yellin combined his passion for music and education to positively impact his community. He played with the FIU wind ensemble, orchestra, new music ensemble and laptop ensemble. His musical talents landed him first place at FIU’s concerto competition with Paul Creston’s “Concertino for Marimba” and he was selected as a top three artist at the Ars Flores Concerto Competition with the Emmanuel Séjourné Marimba Concerto. Recently, his composition “No Exit” for laptop ensemble was selected for the 2013 Florida Electro-Acoustic Student Festival.

As a member of FIU’s Honors College, he worked with Associate Dean Juan Carlos Espinosa and his mentor Professor Jacob Sudol in the Advanced Research and Creativity in Honors program. His research consisted of creating “Ame Ga Furu” (“It Rains”), a composition for percussion, live electronics, and video. It combined aspects of Wabi Sabi, the Japanese philosophy of finding beauty within imperfections, with Glitch Music, an experimental form of electronic music that deliberately uses imperfections in audio recordings.

Daniel also was an instructor at El Sistema’s Miami Music Project, which aims to change the lives of young people through classical music. He taught music theory classes, percussion ensemble classes, private lessons, and sophomore and junior orchestra. For the past three years, Daniel also has taught and composed music for the John A. Ferguson High School marching band.

After graduation, Daniel plans to go to graduate school.


Rakesh Guduru
Ph.D., Electrical Engineering
College of Engineering and Computing

As a boy growing up in India, Rakesh Guduru dreamed of one day becoming a scientist. His idol was Nikola Tesla, the Serbian American inventor best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electrical supply system.

After receiving his master’s degree in biomedical engineering from FIU, Rakesh turned down a job offer to study instead with Professor Sakhrat Khizroev in his lab and earn his Ph.D.

Their research is based on biotechnology, applying engineering to medicine. Khizroev said, with 24/7 access to the lab, Rakesh practically lives on the fourth floor of the AHC1 building. Their hard work has paid off as Rakesh has assisted Khizroev on research breakthroughs in novel ways to deliver drugs using nanotechnology to treat such diseases as ovarian cancer, HIV-AIDS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and epilepsy.

Khizroev has served as his role model, and Rakesh hopes to become a professor himself one day. He’ll continue to work in the lab as a post-doctoral researcher. Rakesh enjoys applying knowledge directly to treating and curing people with diseases and giving them a better life.


Paul McCall
Ph.D., Electrical Engineering
College of Engineering and Computing

Like many young boys, Paul McCall dreamed of being a football player. After starring at Hollywood Hills High School, Paul came to FIU, where he was the starting quarterback for the Panthers. However, after taking a few hits at the Division I level, Paul realized his body was not built to hold up forever and thought very quickly about what he was going to do after college.

Paul beat a path to FIU’s Engineering Center to pursue his passion for electrical engineering. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees while on an athletic scholarship, leading the FIU football team. For the last three years he has been on a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship while pursuing his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering.

During internships at such places as the Air Force Research Lab and Dahlgren Naval Base, Paul learned how to respond rapidly to urgent needs with work that contributed to national security and saving people’s lives.

Working with his adviser, Professor Malek Adjouadi, Paul focused his research on the signal analysis of space debris in low-Earth orbit, allowing him to pursue a career in the aerospace community. Paul and his wife recently moved to northern Virginia, where he has accepted a position with the U.S. Department of Defense.