Triumph after tragedy: FIU graduates overcome adversity


I did it Commencement

As an infant, LeAnn Shannon, 32, suffered a spinal cord injury that robbed her of the ability to walk. But like other fellow FIU graduates, she put adversity aside and set out to make her dreams come true.

At age 11, Shannon became the youngest professional wheelchair racer, and two years later, competed in the wheelchair exhibition event at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. That same year Shannon competed in the Paralympic Games, where she won three gold and one silver medals and broke two world records.

leann headshotEventually, with the same spirit of determination, she entered the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine. When she graduates this spring, Shannon, a mother of two, will be the first in her family to graduate with a medical degree. She will graduate on Monday, May 4 at 10 a.m.

Shannon is among 5,015 students who will be receiving degrees this spring – a new record. The spring commencement ceremonies will take placeSunday, May 3; Monday, May 4; and Tuesday, May 5 at the FIU Arena on FIU’s Modesto A. Maidique Campus, 11200 SW 8th St. in west Miami-Dade County.

“LeAnn Shannon inspires us to set high expectations and achieve them, regardless of the obstacles,” said FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg. “She has turned the impossible into the inevitable.”

Shannon is also part of a group of standout students who will be recognized as Worlds Ahead graduates at the ceremonies. Other Worlds Ahead students include:

  • Cuban-born Jorge Hernandez, 49, was diagnosed with degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa, at 12 years old. However, the drastic change to his vision happened when he was 21, as a result of a cycling accident where he was struck and left on the side of the road. Following the accident, his vision went from 20/40 to 20/200 (legally blind) in a matter of six months. But his visual impairment didn’t get in the way of his studies. Inspired by his dad, who learned programming when he had to implement a computer-based billing system, Hernandez gave information technology (IT) a try and enrolled at FIU in 2009. Hernandez also is an advocate for the visually impaired, serving as vice president of the National Federation of the Blind’s (NFB) Miami chapter and a board member of NFB’s Florida Chapter. He frequently visits Washington, D.C. to speak with elected officials about the blind community. Hernandez will graduate on Monday, May 4 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Sabrina Sales Martinez, 37, has dedicated the last few years to conducting research on the effect nutrition has on HIV patients. She traveled to Botswana, to work with locals infected with HIV who may have limited access to antiretroviral medication. The research she conducted, under the direction of Dietetics and Nutrition Professor Marianna Baum, contributed to a breakthrough discovery: taking a combination of multivitamins and selenium delayed the onset of symptoms for patients recently infected with HIV. These findings were then published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Martinez is no stranger to the pain that HIV causes families. Her uncle and godfather, Eduardo Acosta, passed away as a result of HIV before effective medications were available. Today, she carries out her research in his memory. Martinez will graduate on Monday, May 4 at 10 a.m.

For more on these and other FIU Worlds Ahead graduates please click here. For a full commencement schedule, click here.

The commencement speaker will be:

  • Florida State Senator Bill Nelson, at 10 a.m. on Monday.

During the commencement ceremonies, the following community members will be honored with FIU medallions:

  • Former U.S. ambassador to Belgium, Paul L. Cejas, will be awarded the FIU Medallion–Cal Kovens Distinguished Community Service Award, at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday.
  • FIU women’s swim team members Jessica Chadwick and Chase Harris will be awarded the FIU Medallion of Courage at2 p.m. on Sunday.
  • Executive director of Sant La, Haitian Neighborhood Center, Gepsie M. Metellus, will be awarded the FIU Medallion–Cal Kovens Distinguished Community Service Award, at 10 a.m. on Monday.

For more details about FIU’s spring commencement ceremonies, please visit

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