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As we close out the 2018 Fall semester, we would like to take a moment to showcase the CASE Worlds Ahead graduates. These graduates exhibit outstanding perseverance, intelligence and personal strength during their time at FIU, and fully demonstrate and embrace what it means to be Worlds Ahead.

Worlds Ahead Graduates are nominated by faculty members to be personally honored during their commencement ceremony. Their ingenuity, compassion, intelligence and courage set them apart from their graduating class. We mark them down in FIU history through a news feature and in the Past Worlds Ahead Graduates record. Read about what makes them Worlds Ahead.

Justyce Pinkney — Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, School of Integrated Science and Humanity    

Justyce Pinkney grew up in some of the toughest neighborhoods in South Miami-Dade. Her parents struggled to make ends meet. Of five siblings, she is the first to earn a college degree. Her older brothers never finished high school and were in constant legal trouble. Her older sister became pregnant before the end of her senior year. Although she had no role model herself, she became one for her younger sister.

As a full-time student, Justyce worked part time at Coconut Grove Cares-The Barnyard to support her four nieces and nephews while caring for her grandmother who was diagnosed with cancer.

With the advice of Jeanette Cruz from FIU’s Student Support Services Program, Justyce applied for a McNair fellowship and was accepted. Alongside Bethany Reeb-Sutherland, she is examining the neurobiology of children with autism spectrum disorder using eye blinking conditioning. She determined — for the first time — that children with autism display deficits in their eyeblink conditioning unlike typically developing preschoolers. This suggests cerebellar impairments may serve as potential biomarkers for autism.

Less than 1 percent of African American women successfully complete a Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics degree. As a first-generation, African American and Puerto Rican student from a low-income home, Justyce has defied those odds by earning her bachelor’s in psychology.

After graduation, Justyce wants to pursue a Ph.D. and advocate for children who, like her, come from low-income communities and promote resiliency so they, too, can break their own barriers to success.

Jessica Saunders – Ph.D. in Psychology, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

Massachusetts-native Jessica Saunders discovered her passion for psychology in high school and pursued her bachelor’s degree at Wellesley College. Despite her fear of statistics courses, she found her calling in quantitative methods. She worked in psychology research labs in Boston and Chicago, but an eating disorder led her to Miami for treatment.

Through her recovery, she found inspiration and enrolled at FIU to pursue a master’s degree in psychology. As she approached graduation in 2016, a close friend died of anorexia nervosa. Devastated, Jessica relapsed with her own eating disorder just as she was embarking on her pursuit of a Ph.D. She eventually realized she could no longer put her academic success ahead of her well-being and entered intensive treatment. Months later, she was on the road to recovery, but the treatment was costly. Her Ph.D. advisor Asia Eaton recognized Jessica’s potential as well as her struggles and her determination. Wanting to help, Asia welcomed Jessica into her home so she could continue her studies. Jessica found the stability she needed.

Jessica is earning a Ph.D. in psychology with a focus on developmental science. Her research aims to optimize developmental outcomes for girls and women. She investigates the impacts of media and cultural beliefs on disordered eating and recovery. Her work has been published in leading peer-reviewed journals. She now works as a postdoctoral researcher at the UNLV Women’s Research Institute and plans to pursue a tenure-track position to teach, mentor and continue her research.

Geraldine De Jesus Cadet — Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, School of Integrated Science and Humanity 

Geraldine De Jesus Cadet is helping to build and restore families in West Coconut Grove – a community plagued by poverty, violence and drug abuse.

As assistant program director and youth counselor at Coconut Grove Cares-The Barnyard, Geraldine is putting her research to work. As a psychology major, she studies how violence, race, low socioeconomic status and poverty affect children. At The Barnyard, she is a mentor to children who, like her, come from poverty.

Geraldine was just 2 years old when her family immigrated to the United States in search of better opportunities. They moved in with her grandmother who owned a “Mercadito Nica” in Sweetwater across from FIU’s Engineering Center. Geraldine spent much of her time at the market helping any way she could, even giving English lessons to employees. But the transition was not easy. Her parents juggled multiple jobs, struggling to make ends meet. They divorced when she was 14.

But Geraldine was determined to succeed. She enrolled at FIU in 2016. Under the guidance of Dionne Stephens and Purnima Madhivanan, Geraldine led her first research project while in Mysore, India as part of the Global Health Study Abroad Program. She surveyed 116 mothers and children about their perceptions of behaviors related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She is a first-generation university student, a McNair Scholar, and has two publications based on her work in India under review.

After graduation, Geraldine wants to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology.

Daniel Padron — Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, School of Integrated Science and Humanity   

As a young boy, Daniel Padron mimicked scientists from cartoons. He would make concoctions out of toothpaste and liquid soap in his bathroom sink. In high school, a teacher ignited his deep curiosity for science which led him to pursue a chemistry degree at FIU.

In his sophomore year, things changed. Daniel’s father suddenly moved out of the country and stopped supporting him, his sister, Christina, and their sick mother, Mercy. They lived for months without water or power. Faced with eviction, they took shelter in a cramped 2009 Honda Civic and lived there for four months. Daniel was told to contact the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services office which connected him with Fostering Panther Pride – a program that helps students who are homeless or transitioning out of foster care to continue their education.

Soon, Daniel and Christina had tuition waivers to cover the cost of classes and funding to live on campus. After living in a car for so long, Daniel says the first night sleeping in a bed, freshly showered and no longer hungry was transformational.

He worked with chemistry professor Sonia Underwood conducting research to understand how students learn in STEM courses, and taught chemistry labs at FIU. He received the Global Learning Medallion, studied abroad in Japan and received certifications in Japanese and teaching English.

After commencement, Daniel plans to pursue a master’s degree in education and teach English in Japan.

Alexandra Cardoso Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies, School of Environment, Arts and Society

Alexandra Cardoso wants to turn hard moments into a lifetime of doing good for others.

Alexandra was raised in West Kendall. As a junior in high school, she was diagnosed with a condition that caused her to faint when her heart rate increased and blood pressure decreased. She fainted nearly 60 times at school and had to finish her final semester from home.

Choosing to stay close to family, Alexandra enrolled at FIU. As a sophomore, she was diagnosed with a disorder that makes it difficult for her esophagus to break down food. She underwent three procedures and two surgeries to help manage the symptoms. In between hospital stays, Alexandra found an outlet in applying make-up.

At FIU, Alexandra participated in a recreational therapy study abroad experience where shelearned about the challenges disabled people face when traveling.She also did the “Shakespeare in Stratford and London” program where she studied Shakespeare’s plays and recreated theatrical makeup. Alexandra put her passion for helping children into action and raised $2,000 for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals through FIU’s Roarthon. She also foundedAMC Artistry, a small business where she applies make-up for clients and helps children with disabilities develop fine motor skills and confidence through makeup application.

Alexandra is earning a degree in liberal studies. After graduation, she wants to grow her business, create an inclusive community for the disabled in the cosmetics industry, and be an advocate for people with disabilities.

Jennifer Coccaro Pons — Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction: Learning Technologies, School of Education and Human Development

Jennifer Coccaro Pons is making good on a childhood promise she made to her maternal grandfather: she is following in his footsteps and earning a Ph.D.

In 2010, Jennifer enrolled at FIU’s doctoral Curriculum and Instruction program and chose to focus her studies on learning technologies. It was a natural fit for the mother of two. She developed educational toys and apps to help children learn Spanish. And, along with her husband, she co-wrote two technology-inspired young adult novels.

Before she could finish her studies, Jennifer faced some challenges. She first had to schedule her classes around cancer treatments for her ailing aunt who passed away in 2015. Then her husband needed two surgeries to treat a heart condition. After he recovered, Jennifer focused again on her studies and her dissertation on the proliferation of hoax websites.

Jennifer’s findings show students entering college lack critical thinking skills that could help them weigh information on legitimate sites more favorably than questionable online content. All too often, Jennifer discovered, these undergraduates accepted questionable information because it supported their beliefs or solely because it was published online. She is advocating for teaching critical thinking skills for children in elementary school.

After commencement, Jennifer plans to publish a children’s book based on her dissertation. She also wants to open her own non-profit school where the curriculum will focus on technology and will develop these much-needed critical thinking skills in students.

Kelsey Reider —Ph.D. in Biology, School of Environment, Arts and Society

Kelsey Reider wants to help vulnerable animals survive in a fast-changing world.

Growing up in Ohio, Kelsey loved catching and examining the animals that took up residence in her backyard pond, including frogs, snakes and turtles. She channeled that passion and earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the Ohio State University.

After graduating, Kelsey worked as a research assistant at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica. There, she met FIU biologist Maureen Donnelly who encouraged her to apply to FIU. In 2008, Kelsey enrolled to pursue graduate studies and conduct research in the Herpetology Lab, which is dedicated to the study of reptiles and amphibians.

As a Ph.D. student in biology, Kelsey studied how frogs respond to climate change, extreme conditions, and disease in the high Andes Mountains in Peru. Frogs are great indicators of environmental change. Kelsey’s research, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, could inform wildlife conservation in high mountain environments, including the Andes, where climate change impacts are early and severe. While working in Peru, Kelsey also trained and established collaborations with local scientists.

Kelsey is the first in her family to graduate from college. She wants to pursue a career in wildlife conservation research and education.

Amro Al Ashi — Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences and Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies, School of Environment, Arts and Society

Amro Al Ashi was in his second year of a six-year medical degree program when his family was forced to evacuate in Gaza, Palestine. It was the fifth and final time they would leave their home in the war-torn country.

Amro, his parents and three brothers boarded a bus bound for Jordan with only the possessions they could carry. They made their way to the United States in August of 2014, settling in South Florida where Amro’s father had once attended college.

Just happy to be alive, Amro stopped thinking about becoming a doctor. As a Muslim, he felt lost in a Muslim-minority country. But as the sounds of war became more distant, his ambition returned.

Five months after arriving in the United States, Amro enrolled as a biology major at FIU, immersing himself in university life. He developed close bonds with his professors, and worked as a learning assistant and tutor. He participated in research programs including a 12-week fellowship at the University of Michigan. He flourished in the Honors College, where his academic success was closely aligned with community service, something that was not an education priority in Palestine. He volunteered with several medical programs and at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in the Pediatric Cardiac Intensive Care Unit.

Each experience has guided Amro on a path to medical school which he will begin next year. He plans to specialize in pediatric cardiology and wants to join Doctors Without Borders someday, providing lifesaving humanitarian care in countries like his native Palestine.

See the full list of the Fall 2018 Worlds Ahead graduates.