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Eight Unique Paths to Graduation

USF Tampa's more than 4100-plus graduating seniors have more than 4100-plus unique stories about life as a Bull. The small sampling highlighted here illustrates the extraordinary variety of experiences.

By Barbara Melendez
      USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (April 30, 2015) – Amidst the camera flashes and cheers from loved ones in the USF Sun Dome, thousands will experience the unique joy of having cleared one of life's most important hurdles – a higher education milestone. Whether earning an undergraduate or graduate degree, there's nothing quite like the simultaneous sensations of completion and beginning a new chapter.

USF salutes each and every graduating student for having risen above all the hurdles encountered on the way to this truly important finish line. Every new graduate has a story to tell. Below you'll find, from USF's Tampa campus, just a few who stand out for a variety of reasons. The one thread that ties them together is achievement above and beyond the call of duty. They also share in having impressed quite a few people around them along the way.

We couldn't be more aware that there are many, many more stories out there. Limits of time and space preclude an article of that length. We hope you will enjoy this cross-section that represents all of our hopes and aspirations.

Each brief summary links to a story with more details. Maybe you've met some of them, had classes with others or maybe you passed by them at the Marshall Student Center without taking notice. In any case, get to know them better now. They just might inspire you as you approach your own life's next chapter.

USF Student Body President Jean Cocco is probably a familiar name. That comes with the office. Graduating with a degree in political science and international studies from the College of Arts & Sciences, Cocco is pursuing an employment opportunity in Miami that is still taking shape. He says, “My ultimate career plans consist of attaining a position in the U.S. State Department and eventually working my way up to be a senior-level diplomat and possibly a U.S. Ambassador. He's off to a great start and sums up his experiences at USF, “In one word – unforgettable.” Among his unforgettable moments is one that involved a fateful meeting with the relative of someone he has admired since childhood.

Giampiero Fuentes just keeps piling on the education and life experiences. A degree in electronics and multi-media, playing on a winning European Division One soccer team, transfering from HCC to major in finance at USF, starting two businesses, producing and hosting "Azul Night" on Telemundo, managing and representing more than 15 artists – somehow he makes it all fit together. His energy, entrepreneurial skills and honor society memberships helped him qualify as an honoree in the Muma College of Business 25 Under 25 program.

Following a fascinating journey from Europe to Florida, Fuentes was able to make himself right at home.

"I have really cherished my time here at USF," he said. "The school spirit and family environment at USF has made me feel like I belonged here from day one and really motivated me during my studies. I feel like I have made great connections with both my peers and professors. Being able to know all of those who work in the business school and my professors on a personal level and have arapport with them where they are so accessible and willing to help has been an absolute pleasure. It makes USF seem llike one big family. Once a Bull, always a Bull."

And it looks like he's here to stay.

"Most likely the Tampa Bay area will be be my 'home base' and I will get to work from around the globe," he said. "I have really grown to love it here and have really made great connections."

He's thinking about going for his master's degree and somewhere down the road do something entirely different from all his current enterprises.

"My dream would be to one day open my own boat chartering company, as I love both the warter and entertaining people. If I could turn this passion of mine into a successful enterprise, I would be the world's happiest guy."

"Amazing opportunities” came Ivana Lam's way during her four years at USF. She says that the university owes its prestige to the fact that “USF has dedicated a great amount of time, effort, and resources to student success.” And she considers herself a prime example. “I have met many great professors, staff members, and faculty members who have reached out to help me throughout my entire four years here.” She gave a lot back volunteering in a variety of settings and by taking part in the very first cohort of students in the CAS Dean's Student Leadership Society. Duel majors and two highly competitive scholarships later she's on her way to the United Kingdom.

Trang Luong's journey from Viet Nam to USF involved enormous sacrifice involving her family. Her gratitude and appreciation inspired her to do her best to make it all worthwhile. Her parents would have been proud enough if she simply earned her degree from the College of Engineering, but she chose to rack up numerous honors along the way. Perhaps everything else pales in comparison to having battled cancer and learning English at record speed.


Coming to USF from Ft. Lauderdale was a journey that would lead Jalina Pittman to journey a lot farther from home, Ghana and the United Kingdom for starters. The former Miss Uhuru earned the Gilman Scholarship and took part in the USF Cambridge Schools Internship Program. In the College of Education she found ways to integrate her passions for writing and dancing and discovered a new passion for research.


Eli Ponder-Twardy managed to find balance between the solitary life of a practicing and performing musician and making himself a valuable and valued member of the College of The Arts and Tampa's music scene. Being awarded one of this country's most sought-after and prestigious scholarships will take him back to Europe for a return engagement that will help prepare him for a lifetime of new adventures in line with the direction his life has been moving in since childhood.


A proud recipient of The Moms Project Scholarship, Megan Porter looks forward to commencement and celebrating with friends and family – some flying in from Ohio. With her bachelor's degree from the College of Behavioral and Community Science's Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, she is headed to Florida State University for her master's. 

As someone who enjoys research and statistics, she can't leave without finishing a qualitative sudy on Meniere's disease with her mentor, Professor Roger Boothroyd right up until her next chapter starts in August.  Porter is already a published researcher and has participated in the Undergraduate Research Colloquium as well as other research-centered programs during her undergraduate years at USF.

Born in St. Petersburg and raised in Riverview, Porter graduated from Riverview High School. The cum laude graduate has always known that she wanted to help people in a medical setting. “As a speech-language pathologist, I would have the ability to treat individuals with all kinds of needs, such as individuals who have had a traumatic brain injury or stroke or provide early intervention with newborn babies,” she said.

Honors College dual major in economics and international studies, Hiram Rios, is a USF Ambassador and something of a “superstar.” He became the first student in USF history to receive the U.S. Department of State's Thomas R. Pickering Undergraduate Fellowship. Before this he earned a Gilman Scholarship to study Mandarin Chinese in China. Mandarin Chinese was his minor. He is also a recipient of the Honors College McCorkle Scholarship and the Stuart Silverman Endowed Scholarship. Along the way Rios worked in the USF Office of National Scholarships and shared his knowledge and experience to help other students prepare and apply for these and other prestigious competitive scholarships. Rios also holds the distinction of being named USF's very first Student Employee of the Year. Originally from Puerto Rico, he has plans to become a Department of State Foreign Service officer. Is it any wonder the USF Alumni Association named him this semester's outstanding graduate?

He earned that title, unofficially, in the National Scholarships Office.

"Hiram started working here as a freshman and it was transformative for him and transformative for the office. He really does his best every single day and it shows," said Interim Director Lauren Chambers. "I want to clone him because because he truly cares and he is so engaged. I'm excited for him and can only imagine the tremendous impact he will have on society."

The class of Fall 2015 can look back upon their alma mater with pride as President Genshaft and her team travel into an exciting future. Congratulations to all!

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563

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