Reaching Milestones

Alumni and friends return Aug. 18 for Latino Scholarship Program’s 20th anniversary celebration at the School of Music.



By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Aug. 15, 2011) – Sometimes the best students are worried about being successful, even if they don’t need to be.


Though a little nervous, the teenaged Brandon Rodriguez was determined and confident as he stood before a panel of people who would decide whether he would receive the scholarship that would help him get closer to his goal.


He was an excellent student and clearly a promising one. The panel agreed, and Rodriguez received the scholarship from the University of South Florida’s Latino Scholarship Program and a new mentor cheering him on – Donna Parrino, the program’s first director. 


“I have always known that I was going to become an eye surgeon and so obtaining as many scholarships as possible was paramount,” he said.


Now he’s returning to USF to reminisce and celebrate the program’s 20th anniversary on Thursday, Aug. 18, as the eye surgeon he set out to be. His and countless memories will be recalled as representatives from families, organizations and corporations from the Tampa Bay area gather together with past and recent alumni.


Familiar names like those of the Gonzmart family, the SantYago Education Foundation, the Helios Education Foundation and the Mayor’s Hispanic Advisory Council will be on hand in the beautiful new concert hall at the School of Music from 5 to 9 p.m. (For more information, contact Patsy Feliciano at (813) 974-3827.)


The faith the program had in him was well-founded. Rodriguez graduated from the USF honors biology program magna cum laude in 1998. He was also a McNair Scholar and went on to earn his medical degree at Penn State and subsequently served in the U.S. Navy after 9/11.  After finishing a fellowship at Cornell University, he now practices at the Newsom Eye & Laser Center in Tampa, operating on corneas, cataracts and doing LASIK surgery. 


“It is the philanthropy and mentorship of the donors that provides students at USF with the necessary foundation to achieve academic success,” Rodriguez said. “I am very thankful for their generosity.”


Twenty years and $2 million later, 300 students have now graduated from the program. Parrino worked with the program for the first decade and turned the torch over to Patsy Feliciano who has overseen the program through this year’s very special celebration.


“Today our program’s alumni are serving our communities as professionals in fields such as education, nursing, medicine, law, engineering, accounting, you name it.  Taken together they comprise an amazing cadre of people,” said Feliciano, who also serves as USF’s director of equal opportunity affairs and diversity.


The program looks for high achieving students in need of financial assistance. Prospective applicants also have to be the first in their families to attend college.


Another magna cum laude USF graduate and more recent Latino Scholarship recipient and McNair Scholar is Monica Sleeter. An English teacher at Hillsborough High School, she was recognized in 2007 by former governor Charlie Crist with the Hispanic Heritage Excellence in Education Award.  


She was nervous when she was interviewed for the scholarship. Sleeter was a non-traditional student, a little older than the typical incoming freshman and the mother of two young children – one a newborn. But she made it into the program and was mentored by the Hispanic Professional Women’s Association, which also presented her with its annual book award. Her senior year she was honored with being selected as a Dominick and Emmeline Aripoli Scholar. Sleeter graduated with two bachelor’s degrees, one in creative writing and the other in Spanish. 


Her profession seems to meet her childhood dreams as well.


“My husband jokes that I got my dream job, because as a kid I wanted to be a performer, and now, he says I have a daily captive audience,” she said. “I wasn't really sure when I started USF exactly what I wanted to be since I started out in marketing, but I knew that it had to involve books and reading and, after seeing the support from the USF community and the needs in our schools, all the cards just fell into place. I ended up working at my alma mater, Hillsborough High School.


“The program’s motto, ‘We must lift as we climb’ is ingrained in me,” Sleeter added. “As a teacher at a Title 1 school, I see myself in my students. I see the desire and yearning that I also had, to make something of their lives.”


And the story doesn’t end there. Sleeter just earned her master’s degree in English education from USF this month and her eldest daughter is a USF sophomore.


“My master's thesis was inspired by many factors, including being a Latino scholar,” she said citing her work: El Poder / The Power: Latino /a Literature Inclusion in the Florida High School Language Arts Classroom as a Contributing Deterrent to the Latino/a Dropout Rate.” Echoing the program’s logo she said, “I am still trying to lift as I climb.”


The latest group of scholarship award recipients will get to see and meet both Sleeter and Rodriguez.  The two alumni will join members of the Latin Community Advisory committee, as well as Parrino and Feliciano as presenters at the 20th anniversary event. There are currently 105 students following in Rodriguez’s and Sleeter’s footsteps, receiving scholarships and paired with their scholarship sponsors who serve as mentors until they graduate.


“Mentoring is a key component of our program, one that we know makes it so successful and meaningful,” said Feliciano. “This aspect provides much-needed guidance, encouragement and opportunities – connections that they will have throughout their careers and their lives.”


A case in point, Rodriguez and Parrino, now assistant to the vice provost at USF, remain close.


“Donna has been great. Even after I left USF and went all over the world, training, working, etcetera, we have always been in touch. So of course, when I moved back to Tampa, after 13 years, one of the first people I contacted was her,” he said. 


The generosity of individuals, foundations and corporations has been extraordinary, according to Feliciano. The Helios Education Foundation made an historic gift of $1.25 million in 2008 which provided matching dollars for those from community donors and was eligible for matching funds from the State of Florida. 

“Matches were provided again this year to leverage community gifts received during the 2010 to 2011 fiscal year. We appreciate donations in all sizes, large, medium and small,” she said.   

Feliciano and everyone connected to the program proudly point to this year’s graduates who number 23 with 13 continuing in school to pursue graduate degrees.


“One of our students was accepted into University of Florida’s School of Dentistry, another into Stetson University College of Law and another to Ross University College of Medicine,” she said glowing with pride.  “I will never stop being proud of this program and proud of all the people who have been supported by it. We’re looking forward to the next 20 years and many more scholars. I think the program’s founder, Dr. Braulio Alonso, a beloved educational leader in Tampa who we lost last year, will be smiling down on us with pride.”


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.