Dear colleagues,

Wow — the semester has flown by! This last week has not been an exception.

I keep getting asked about our bowl game in Montgomery on December 21, 2019: “Am I ready to go bowling?” is the question more often than not. A bit of a forced smile issues then from me because the truth is that I am concentrating as much as possible on our 10 commencements: yesterday (2), today (3), tomorrow (3) and Tuesday (2)!

Ten commencements. Four days. Fifty-seven hundred graduates. Nearly 40,000 souls (family members and loved ones) in the Ocean Bank Convocation Center to celebrate this university rite of passage.
Here are my rules: Each commencement must be better than the last, with the constant that the ceremony is joyful, upbeat, inspiring, and uniquely unforgettable for our graduates and their families; the proceedings should be free of politics, a safe space for happiness and celebration; and we come together in thanksgiving that graduation day has finally arrived.

In short, that those two hours in the Convocation Center are the “safest spaces” anywhere in the world for those actually graduating and all who come to share in the triumph of their education journey — families, loved ones, friends, faculty, professional staff, and even the president, provost, deans and others who manage the proceedings.

Disclosure: for me, each graduation is an opportunity to celebrate, be joyful, and be bathed in positive energy. Each graduation re-confirms the goodness of the education process, the miracle of learning, the exhilaration of a difficult task completed, and the commencement of a new, more wonderful phase in the lives of our learners.

In my years in education, I have learned not to take anything for granted, including the fact that a graduation has occurred. Behind every graduation, there is a story that is worth learning and that can give one strength, courage and encouragement to continue the journey. To fight the good fight. And to keep on keepin’ on.

Here are two stories that inspire and encourage us about the tenacity and determination of our graduating students.
Meet Linda Armstrong, an FIU student graduating this semester with a Bachelor’s in Social Work from our Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work. She’s one of this semester’s Worlds Ahead graduates, a select group of students nominated by faculty members to be personally honored at their commencement. These students stand out because they exhibit perseverance, intelligence and personal strength during their time at FIU. They also have taken responsibility in a way that inspires.

A native of Miami Gardens, she grew up in a single-parent home with nine other siblings, two of whom were foster kids. Her father was her best friend, but he died when she was just 16 years old.

Although her dad only had a second-grade education, he knew the power of an academic credential, and always encouraged her to study.

“Books first, boys later,” Linda recalls her father saying time and time again.

After his death, Linda struggled, and at one point, she even attempted suicide. But she decided to take her father’s advice and go to college to study social work, so that she could help others like her survive and thrive.

Earning her degree has not been easy. She was an unemployed single mom. With a son with autism, Linda would often go to sleep in tears, not knowing if she’d have enough money to pay her bills. Graduating seemed almost impossible.

With the help of grants such as the Stempel Scholarship, Braman Family Completion Scholarship and other support, Linda made ends meet, and this Fall she’s graduating with a 3.8 GPA!

Not only is her academic performance impressive, but so is her field work. She completed her field practicum at the Miramar Police Department Victim Services Unit, where she was lauded by her peers for her commitment to social justice and interventions to improve clients’ lives. Linda now wants to continue her studies at FIU. She wants to earn a master’s degree in social work and eventually become a licensed clinical medical social worker, certified in forensic interviewing.

And then there’s Bianca Maderal, who’s graduating with a psychology degree from the College of Arts, Science & Education.

During her high school Spanish class, while chatting with a friend, Bianca suddenly had a seizure. She was taken to the hospital and after numerous medical tests, including a 7-inch craniotomy biopsy, doctors gave her some disheartening news.

Bianca had stage three brain cancer, and it was one of the rarest and most aggressive forms.

Diagnosed with eight tumors, Bianca moved to Baltimore for radiation and chemotherapy treatments at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
 
Despite her health ordeal, she was determined to continue her studies, and completed high school online and graduated on time, with her class.
 
After eight weeks of treatment at Johns Hopkins, Bianca returned to Miami and enrolled at Miami Dade College, balancing a heavy course load with chemotherapy sessions.

As if her plate wasn’t already sufficiently full, Bianca set out to create Fight Like A Kid, a nonprofit where she sends care packages to hospitals with pediatric cancer units, while organizing fundraisers for research
and clinical trials.

Bianca also hosts parties for patients in the hospital – you can sometimes spot her dressed like an elf during the holiday season – and she organizes toy drives.

Bianca is graduating with a 3.9 GPA and is a member of Psi Chi, Phi Beta Kappa and the Golden Key Honor Society.
 
Today, seven of Bianca’s eight tumors are gone.
 
“I was assigned this mountain to show others that it can be moved. In my eyes, it’s cancer’s turn to be afraid,” she said.
 
After graduation, Bianca wants to attend FIU’s new program in natural and applied sciences.  She hopes to one day become a pediatric oncologist to help children battling cancer.

She also wants to continue her work with Fight Like A Kid.

Real Triumphs. Linda and Bianca’s journeys, while at times challenging, prove that with strength of character, determination and faith, anyone willing to work hard can succeed. This is a lesson that needs constant repetition. 
 
No wonder we take our graduation ceremonies so seriously! Yes, the football bowl in Montgomery Alabama on December 21, 2019 is out there. But so are countless graduating students from our FIU who deserve the momentary recognition of an uplifting commencement and their particular moment of glory. 

It makes me and our entire university community very proud to be associated with them and their families. It makes us equally proud to know that our FIU is playing a small role in preparing them for a lifetime journey of hope, opportunity, challenges, setbacks and triumphs.

This journey is one in which their alma mater will be with them every step of the way, ready to help in the lifelong learning process and to help in providing solutions for the complex problem solving ahead. Every day we expect to get stronger and better so that when the moment comes for them and us, we are ready! 
 
You are invited to enjoy one of our remaining graduations this holiday season.  See you at graduation? It will be calming to the soul and reassuring to the heart to be with so many people celebrating the joy of achievement at our Convocation Center today, tomorrow and Tuesday! Let me know if you want in. You are always welcome at our FIU! 

In the Panther spirit,

Mark B. Rosenberg