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Believe in Bulls

Short stories about a few of USF's incredible graduates and how they're shaping the future

Menkeoma Laura Okoli – Master’s in Public Health
Menkeoma Laura Okoli’s first name means “Do Good” in Nigeria’s Igbo language. It’s a fitting translation for a woman who has dedicated much of her life to helping others. Before coming to USF, Dr. Okoli was a practicing physician in her native Nigeria. There she witnessed multiple terrorist attacks and treated countless victims who had been maimed and injured in the bombings. It was these experiences that Dr. Okoli says inspired her to come to USF, seeking deeper training to help her make a larger impact on those in need. During her time on campus, Dr. Okoli has worked at the Florida Prevention Research Center at USF Health, advocating for colorectal cancer disease prevention, and has also volunteered for USF’s Health Services Corps, an outreach program that educates high school students on important health topics and career goals. She plans to one day return to Nigeria and use the skills she’s gained here to effect real change in the place she calls home.

Avi Davidson – Bachelor’s in Behavioral Health Care
Avi Davidson has had to overcome some pretty big obstacles to get to where he is today. As a teenager, Davidson was involved in an accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down and without one of his arms. After being in a medically induced coma for nearly a month and spending many more in recovery, Davidson says he found his calling helping others overcome the challenges in their lives. It’s that passion that led him to pursue a degree in behavioral health care at USF. Now, years later, Davidson is graduating with his bachelor’s degree and has continued to inspire and uplift people struggling with medical challenges. He hopes to continue at USF and has his sights set on a master’s degree in social work.

Shawn & Shari Zamani –Bachelor’s in Public Health
When Shawn and Shari Zamani emigrated from Iran in 2012, the siblings were still learning to speak English. Now, just six years later, they’re graduating together from USF Health’s College of Public Health and hope to continue making an impact in the lives of those who may cross their paths. As the recipient of this semester’s Outstanding Graduate Award, Shawn has been remarkably active both on and off campus. He’s conducted research on USF’s tobacco-free policy and serves as the director of public health at the USF Health BRDIGE Clinic. His older sister, Shari, is graduating as a King O’Neal Scholar with a perfect 4.0 GPA and has participated in the USF Foundation’s Women in Leadership & Philanthropy program. Both plan to continue their education through graduate school, and say their experiences at USF have helped shape who they want to become and the impact they want to have on the world.

Cindya Ortega – Bachelor’s in Integrative Animal Biology
When Cindya Ortega first stepped onto the USF campus, she knew she had found a university to call home. As the first person in her family to attend college, Ortega was looking for a place to not only help her grow as a student but support and empower her as an individual, too. That’s exactly what she found in USF. Whether it was the scholarship she received, making it possible for her attend, or the opportunities available to her as an undergraduate, Ortega says coming to USF was one of the best decisions she could have made. Throughout her time on campus, she was heavily involved in extracurriculars and participated in undergraduate biology research – a new passion she hopes to continue while she works toward becoming a veterinarian.

Hunter Drake – Master’s in Psychology
Throughout his time at USF St. Petersburg, Hunter Drake has been an unrelenting champion for his community. As an openly-gay, HIV-positive student, USF staff member and researcher, Drake has worked tirelessly to strengthen HIV education and outreach across the Tampa Bay region. Alongside his graduate studies and his role as a teaching and graduate assistant, Drake continues to volunteer at the AIDS Service Association of Pinellas and as a research manager at the REACH Youth Center. As a project coordinator at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital/USF Health, Drake is working to improve HIV-education and stigma reduction among local youth affected by the virus. Now, as he adds a master’s degree to his list of accomplishments, Drake hopes to continue to use his research to make a tangible impact in the lives of many.

Vernice Gumbs-Crunk – Bachelor’s in Accounting

Vernice Gumbs-Crunk is the first to admit she’s not your typical college student. Seeking a new career after 20 years of managing call centers, Gumbs-Crunk decided to enroll at USF Sarasota-Manatee. She figured that with 15 years of work-life still ahead of her, why not pursue a career that’s interesting and challenging, as well as employable? The idea of going back to school after so many years was daunting, but the idea of not pursuing her dream wasn’t something she wasn’t willing to consider. At age 49, Gumbs-Crunk reaches that dream, graduating with a degree in accounting. Her education won’t stop here. She says she’s now studying for her CPA license, and after that plans to pursue a degree in tax law. 

Vanessa & Jose Arroyo –Bachelor’s in Industrial Engineering
Throughout their time at USF, Vanessa and Jose Arroyo have pushed one another to be the best students they could be. Their competitive spirits have helped the married couple thrive in their challenging and chosen field of industrial engineering. Originally from Colombia, Vanessa was named this semester’s Outstanding Graduate in the department, just nudging out her husband who finished a close second. While on campus, the couple also started the American Society of Engineering Management student organization where Vanessa served as president and Jose as vice president. Born in Puerto Rico, Jose is a member of the USF ROTC program and is enlisted in the Marine Corps. After graduation, he will continue on his journey to becoming a fighter pilot with the ultimate goal of becoming an astronaut. Vanessa has already secured an industrial engineering civilian position with the Air Force. Click here to read more about the Arroyo Family.

Raj Patel – Bachelor’s in Biomedical Sciences
As a high school student, Raj Patel knew he wanted to find a university where he could gain valuable research experience early on. That’s what drew him to USF, he says. Unlike many of the other well-respected schools he toured and considered attending, becoming a Bull meant Patel would have no shortage of opportunity in being able to work alongside world-renowned experts in a variety of fields while also having the ability to follow his passion for leadership. As a freshman, Patel worked as a research intern at the Moffitt Cancer Center, studying the genetic makeup of cancers. At the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute, Patel has also been working on groundbreaking technologies that will change the way researchers find cures for many neurodegenerative diseases. They’re experiences that have inspired his love of research and his want to make a lasting impact on the world. After graduation, Patel plans on attaining his MBA in Healthcare Management from USF before continuing on to medical school.

Marina Kleinschmidt Leal Santos – Bachelor’s in Psychology
Marina Kleinschmidt Leal Santos has lived in a handful of countries around the world. So, when the international student from Brazil was trying to decide where she wanted to attend college, she says USF’s global focus and diverse student body are what drew her to become a Bull. During her time at USF, Leal Santos has immersed herself in research, focusing her honors thesis on an art psychotherapy program designed to help children who have experience trauma. It’s work she hopes to continue in the future and eventually bring back to her native Brazil. Leal Santos is graduating from USF with a nearly perfect GPA and plans to pursue a master’s degree in neuroscience and developmental psychology.

Marek Gacek – Bachelor’s in Finance

Marek came to the United States from Poland as a young boy after the fall of communism. He says he’s never forgotten the struggles of his parents, nor the opportunities afforded to him and his family after arriving in this country. This is why, after high school, Gacek enlisted in the United States Navy. After his service, Gacek found a new calling. Enrolling at USF Sarasota-Manatee, he devoted his free time between studies to assisting veterans at the campus’ Military and Veterans Success Center. He is now graduating with a degree in finance and has made a big impact helping so many veterans move forward to earn their degrees and achieve their dreams.

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