Life curveballs and pandemic aside, a record number of FIU students to graduate this fall

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FIU students will cross the virtual graduation stage on December 13 to celebrate the very real degrees they earned through perseverance and a commitment to success.

“FIU students traditionally have stood out for their determination,” said FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg. “But the class of 2020 has redefined grit. Our university community – the faculty, staff and administration – are so proud of the personal triumphs of each of these Panthers and the impact they are having in our community.”

Among the approximately 6,200 fall graduates are some real success stories:

Maci Kean, 22, lost 75 percent of her hearing by age five because her biological parents didn’t seek treatment for her ear infections.

By the time she was 11, she was an orphan – both parents died because of drug abuse. Sent to live with relatives she said emotionally abused her, Kean’s life continued in turmoil. At age 16, her relatives turned her over to the foster care system. Kean’s plan was to just make it to her 18th birthday and live independently. Those plans changed during her junior year at South Plantation High School, when Gigi and Chris Kean – both FIU graduates and parents of one of her classmates – adopted her just 51 days shy of her 18th birthday.

On Sunday, the girl who flunked third grade and was an average high school student will graduate summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the College of Arts, Sciences & Education. Kean plans to pursue a graduate degree in organizational sciences with the goal of helping reform the foster care system and continuing to raise awareness about teens in foster care.

“When I was younger, I didn’t see myself as a college graduate,” Kean said. “For me, it was a daily struggle. I was on survival mode and I think that made it difficult to see a successful, happy future. I have come so far in this life and I’m super grateful for it. But it’s also exciting because now it’s the next chapter. What else does life have in store for me?”

Kean, who credits her family’s support along with FIU’s Fostering Panther Pride program and Disability Resource Center, is particularly remarkable because less than 11 percent of former foster care children complete a degree from a four-year university, according to the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, and only 18 percent of deaf people earn their bachelor’s degrees, per the National Deaf Center.

Through homelessness, moving across the country, and caring for her three children, Honors College student Ruth Fabian, 28, completed her FIU degree fully online, tutored local children and provided FAFSA assistance to immigrant parents. She says that her FIU professors offered her compassion and flexibility, as she struggled to complete her coursework with internet access and technology barriers in homeless shelters and public libraries. She also credits FIU for providing the financial assistance and other resources that helped her complete her degree. Fabian continued to give back to her community, even during the challenges she faced. She now lives in Massachusetts, where she grew up, and works as a financial advisor at Northwestern Mutual. She will graduate with a degree in marketing from the College of Business.

Carolina Fernandez, 21, worked in a Minnesota research lab seeking better treatment for leukemia as part of an FIU-partnered summer research program. An Honors College student, Fernandez is part of the Quantifying Biology in the Classroom (QBIC) program, a cohort-based program for students interested in pursuing research. After completing multiple research internships, she was accepted into FIU’s Early Assurance Program (EAP), earning a guaranteed spot in FIU’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, pending her MCAT scores. Fernandez will earn a Bachelor of Science in biological sciences and a second major in natural and applied sciences, medical science track, and a minor in chemistry from the College of Arts, Sciences & Education. She will start medical school in August.

Honors College student Karina Polanco, 25, worked with the Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department to help reduce aggression among inmates by analyzing the jail’s correctional procedures. Polanco, now the lab manager of FIU’s TRIIIAD Lab, used her interdisciplinary education from FIU to understand the psyche and needs of offenders before, during, and after their incarceration. For over a year, she interviewed inmates for her various research topics and learned about the department’s operations and staff. Polanco will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice from the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs and a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the College of Arts, Sciences, & Education. She plans to pursue a doctorate.

The fall virtual commencements start at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020.Each college has its own ceremony that includes an address from Rosenberg and the college’s dean. Each graduate can customize their slide in the program and share the moment with friends and family near and far.

But graduation festivities started long before the ceremony. To get students in the graduation spirit, FIU hosted a commencement caravan that allowed graduates the opportunity to put their Panther pride on display, walk across an outdoor stage, wave to Rosenberg, and receive a gift diploma from FIU mascot Roary. Graduates rolled away with goody bags and one particularly creative Panther – Alex Bahamonde – also earned bragging rights for the “Most Spirited Car” in the caravan


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