Cindy Lewis, 63, a grandmother of three, went back to college to save coral reefs.

Lewis knew she wanted to study coral after a scuba diving trip to the Caribbean. She earned a master’s degree at age 48 and then, to be closer to the coral, she moved from New York to an old conch house in the Florida Keys.

At FIU, her research on the decline of pillar coral sparked a groundbreaking project: the creation of a metaphorical Noah’s Ark. Over 400 pieces of coral were collected and brought to the Keys Marine Laboratory, which led to new disease prevention methods. In 2017, Hurricane Irma almost derailed Lewis’ work when the backup generator failed. Without power, many coral died. Heartbroken, she headed home – only to find it, too, had been destroyed.

“Hurricane Irma brought me to my knees quite literally, but my amazing friends and family buoyed my spirits and gave me the strength to persevere,” Lewis said. “I knew I needed to grit my teeth and stay in the Keys, rebuild my home, and continue my work to save and restore the reefs I have grown to love.”

On Monday, July 29, at 3 p.m. Lewis will graduate with a Ph.D. in biology from the College of Arts, Sciences & Education. After graduation, she will continue to save coral as deputy director of the Keys Marine Laboratory.

Lewis joins more than 4,500 FIU students graduating this summer. FIU will hold eight commencement ceremonies from July 27 – 29 at FIU’s Ocean Bank Convocation Center.

Lewis is also among 22 Worlds Ahead Graduates, who will be recognized for excelling academically, succeeding despite obstacles, and using their education and experiences to make a difference.

“Cindy is a shining example of how learning is lifelong,” said FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg. “She is like many of our students who are leveraging their talent, skills, education and passions to excel and make a difference. We look forward to celebrating their achievements.”

Worlds Ahead Graduates and other standout students who will graduate this summer include:

  • Janet Diaz Martinez, 46, a native of Cuba who also lived in Mexicostarted a new life in the U.S. with her four small children in 2010. She completed her Ph.D. in less than three years while holding a full-time job. Diaz Martinez graduates on Saturday, July 27, at 10 a.m. with a Ph.D. in dietetics and nutrition from the Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work.
  • Kevin Leyva, 27, graduated from high school with poor grades and failed out of various college programs. With the help of an FIU advisor, Leyva turned his academic life around. He regularly earned a spot on the dean’s list while still working full-time in sales and marketing. Leyva graduates on Sunday, July 28, at 3 p.m. with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the College of Business.
  • A native of Haiti, when Tamara Telfort, 23, came out to her father as gay during her senior year of high school, her home life became unbearable. She moved out and ended up in a women’s shelter. With support from Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ Project UP-START and FIU’s Fostering Panther Pride program, which supports former foster care and homeless students, she is graduating on Sunday, July 28, at 7:30 p.m. with a Bachelor of Science in Communication from the College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts.
  • As a high school student in Jamaica, Lajhon Campbell shared his dream of being a scientist with one of his teachers, who told him it would not be possible for him. Today, Campbell is finding ways to give people more time to get to safety during earthquakes. At 21 years old, Campbell graduates Monday, July 29, at 3 p.m. with a master’s degree in geosciences from the College of Arts, Sciences & Education and plans to pursue a Ph.D.
  • A Worlds Ahead Graduate in spring 2018, Jennifer Bustillos, 23, patented a 3D graphene-foam-silicone coating to help deice planes more quickly. Just 15 months after earning her bachelor’s degree, Bustillos graduates on Monday, July 29, at 7:30 p.m. with a master’s degree in materials science and engineering from the College of Engineering & Computing.

The ceremonies also will feature the following commencement speakers:

  • Yolangel ‘Yogi’ Hernandez Suarez, vice president of clinical innovation at Conviva Care Solutions, will speak on Saturday, July 27 at 10 a.m.
  • Michael A. Finney, president and CEO of the Miami-Dade Beacon Council, will speak on Sunday, July 28 at 10 a.m.
  • William D. Talbert III, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, will speak on Sunday, July 28 at 7:30 p.m.

FIU also will grant a posthumous FIU Medallion Outstanding Alumnus Award to David A. Burke, former executive vice president and chief sales and marketing officer of The Breakers Palm Beach, on Sunday, July 28, at 7:30 p.m.


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