Mahalia White, University of North Florida. | Contributed, Wendy Jade Solomon, Fresh Take FloridaMahalia White, University of North Florida. | Contributed, Wendy Jade Solomon, Fresh Take Florida
Mahalia White, University of North Florida. | Contributed, Wendy Jade Solomon, Fresh Take Florida

Florida’s finest: College grads share their inspiring stories

Published on May 3, 2024 at 12:45 pm

University graduation ceremonies across Florida are near, and for some college seniors, the diploma symbolizes overcoming particularly difficult challenges. Here are the personal stories of a few inspiring graduating seniors around the state, including two from Northeast Florida.

‘Setbacks don’t define you’: University of North Florida

Growing up with two brothers, Mahalia White, 25, always knew her competitive nature would lead her to become an athlete. 

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White grew up in Los Angeles, started playing volleyball in high school and committed to play at the University of California, Davis. In her first season, she started for her team and won “Freshman of the Year” recognition. After the season ended, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 lymphoma. 

Six months of chemotherapy and two missed years of volleyball, she returned to the team. But as soon as she was back on the court, the pandemic shut down the season. White also tore her ACL during an off-season practice, further stalling her athletic career. 

“When I had to overcome those challenges, it really kind of gave me a purpose,” White said.

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White spent some of her time away from volleyball volunteering as an ambassador for children’s hospitals and cancer research organizations. Standing on a stage and speaking to a wider audience of young athletes and students like herself became something bigger than just sharing her journey, she said.

“When I had to overcome those challenges, it really kind of gave me a purpose,” White said. “I see where I can make a huge impact on somebody’s life directly just by sharing those things.”

With a bachelor’s degree in hand, she transferred to the University of North Florida to pursue a master’s degree in communication management with a concentration in leadership, and finish her NCAA career. She won the Honda Inspiration Award at the Collegiate Women’s Sports Awards in June 2023.

After graduation, White hopes to continue as a motivational speaker and become involved with diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives to support people in underprivileged communities. She said she wants her journey of beating cancer and pushing through difficulties to continue her career to encourage people in similar situations.

“You shouldn’t let injury or sickness or any kind of setbacks really define you,” she said. “You can still redefine yourself and push forward beyond those things.”

Defending his way to victory: University of Central Florida

Harrison Keating, University of Central Florida. | Contributed, Madison Leigh, Fresh Take Florida

Harrison Keating’s interest in cybersecurity didn’t come from an affinity for video-game hacking, unlike most people he knew. 

“It kind of makes me a bit of an odd fit for it,” the 22-year-old from St. Augustine said, “but I like tinkering and building stuff.” 

His bedroom hobby of website and game development made a computer-science degree inevitable. For Keating, there was no place he wanted to go other than the University of Central Florida. He said he found the school listed at the top of the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition website — with the most wins of any university at the time. 

Keating’s high-school involvement in Civil Air Patrol gave him the opportunity to compete in cyber defense competitions. By his freshman year of college, he said, he felt fully prepared to become involved in UCF’s cybersecurity competition. He began as an alternate, until making the main team his sophomore year — and the team took home first place at the national competition. 

In April, as captain, Keating led his team to secure its sixth national victory. 

“When I first got here, I wouldn’t have been pursuing those kinds of leadership roles,” Keating said. “It just kind of happened. There was a need.” 

Although he doesn’t consider himself the most technical or sharpest member on the cybersecurity competition team, Keating said cyberdefense remains his life’s passion. In the fall, he will begin his master’s degree in cybersecurity at UCF. 

“The things you can do on a laptop,” he said. “It brings power to the individual.” 

‘Fighting the world’s fight’: University of Florida

Nick Blumenthal, University of Florida. | Contributed, International Leadership Foundation, Fresh Take Florida

Raised by his immigrant grandparents in Sioux City, Iowa, Nick Blumenthal found most meals from his culture in the back aisles of gas station convenience stores. 

As nutrition labels were largely in English, Blumenthal and his caregivers, native to India, failed to understand what a healthy diet looked like, he said. 

Becoming medically obese by middle school led him to begin his own lifestyle change and advocate against food insecurity and malnutrition around the world.

“There are so many individuals that experience more hurdles and challenges to being able to access a healthy diet,” said Blumenthal, 21.

Blumenthal pursued a degree in nutritional sciences at the University of Florida. He didn’t want to relearn what a balanced plate of food looked like. He was interested in learning how to promote it. 

His advocacy began first at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. In fall 2022, the then-sophomore met with President Joe Biden and members of Congress about strategies to improve nationwide nutritional health.

Last summer, he spoke at the United Nations World Food Programme — an organization he said “defines what world food security actually means.” 

“Individuals want to have youth perspectives,” said Blumenthal, now an appointee of the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Youth Advisory Council. “We should always commit ourselves to fighting the world’s fight … no matter what age you are.” 

When he graduates in May, Blumenthal will head to Beijing for a one-year immersion experience as a Schwarzman Scholar, to study China’s agricultural systems and perspectives on food insecurity at Tsinghua University. 

Cuban immigrant, cancer survivor: Florida International University

Helia Baez, Florida International University. | Contributed, Lourdes Armas, Fresh Take Florida

Helia Baez, 19, made the journey with her family from Cuba to the melting pot of Miami at just 2 years old. 

Years later, as a 13-year-old middle schooler, her behavior began to change. Unexplained weight gain, frequent fatigue and daily consumption of five gallons of purified water sent Baez on an urgent trip to the hospital. An endocrinology exam revealed a tumor at her pituitary gland. 

Lengthy chemotherapy and radiation treatments kept Baez out of the classroom and away from her friends. But she refused to let cancer crush her ambition. Determined to continue her education, she studied at home and remained in AP courses. 

“I try not to let (cancer) stop me from doing other things,” she said. “Rather, I let that be my motivation.” 

With the cancer in remission, Baez participated in a dual-enrollment program at Miami High and Miami Dade College. It set her up to become a first-generation college student and among the youngest in her class at Florida International University to graduate.

As she prepares to graduate from FIU with a bachelor’s in psychology and a GPA of 3.97, Baez will attend Albizu University in Doral for graduate school. Drawing from her cancer experience and interest in psychology, Baez intends to pursue a career in health care, specializing in children with chronic and severe illnesses. 

“I had a big team of people that was there for me,” she said. “I want to do that for other kids.”

‘One more day’: Florida Polytechnic University

Emily Crowley, Florida Polytechnic University. | Contributed, Jovan Ortiz, Fresh Take Florida

Emily Crowley, 22, wasn’t sure she would graduate high school, let alone Florida Polytechnic University. 

When she was diagnosed with lupus during her senior year of high school, suddenly everything made sense — the brain fog and extreme fatigue weren’t signs of regular teen exhaustion but symptoms of the autoimmune disease.

Crowley, who had an affinity for math and reading, often contemplated dropping out.

“Every day, I would just be like, ‘One more day, and then I’ll think about tomorrow,’ and I kept doing that until I graduated,” she said. 

Crowley will receive a degree in applied mathematics. The Lakeland student will remain local at a remote internship for software company Assist Rx, which is headquartered in Orlando.

Crowley battled rough episodes of her disease in college but said supportive professors helped her. She’s most excited to share her graduation with her momLori Crowley.

“She will tear up to this day thinking about how scared she was when I first got sick,” she said. “She remembers looking at me and just seeing that I wasn’t there. She really was my number one supporter and really lifted me up.”

A healing journey: University of West Florida

Rowe Elmore, Univesrity of West Florida. | Contributed, Fresh Take Florida

Marine veteran Rowe Elmore, 34, had concerns about being an older student and going back to school, but he needed a change. 

Between cognitive and speech therapy and learning to walk without a cane, Elmore — who sustained head and leg injuries while serving in Afghanistan — found the hospital recovery monotonous.

In 2011, he and his squad stepped on an improvised explosive device in Nawzad, Afghanistan. Elmore’s hip popped in and out of its socket during the incident, resulting in the loss of leg mobility and, when he hit the ground, a traumatic brain injury. Recovery took five years.

The University of West Florida’s art and psychology departments offered Elmore a new start.

“I was kind of like a prisoner inside my own body for a little while,” said Elmore of Pensacola.

He was inspired to major in art after he played around with a finger piano in the hospital that reminded him how it felt to be creative. He knew then he would aim to be an art therapist.

“If there’s anybody struggling, I wanted to be part of that process for other people,” he said.

After graduating UWF, he will attend George Washington Universitywhere he will earn a master’s degree in art therapy.

New beginnings in a foreign land: Florida Polytechnic University

Moises Muñoz, Florida Polytechnic University. | Contributed, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, Fresh Take Florida

Moisés Muñoz, 22, has seen his dream change in front of him a million times. 

Born and raised in Venezuela and surrounded by doctors like his mother, his goals included medical school and becoming a surgeon. But since his move to Orlando in 2018, he has learned to see a reshaping of his future as a blessing.

After he graduated from high school, Muñoz couldn’t attend school out of state due to difficulties with financial aid. His family moved to Lakeland, where he could attend Florida Polytechnic University.

“Being in a school with a very low Hispanic population, sometimes you feel out of place,” Muñoz said.

Nonetheless, he started the first chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers at the school. The organization attended the group’s fall 2023 national convention in Salt Lake City and won Florida Polytechnic’s “Best Innovative Club of the Year” award.

“There are people in the same positions that I wish I could be, so it’s not an impossible task,” he said.

After earning his undergraduate degree this spring, Muñoz hopes to pursue a master’s in mechanical engineering at Florida Polytechnic. In the immediate future, he wants to pivot toward biomedical engineering to work with biomaterials, tissue engineering and wound healing. 

“I’m really proud,” he said. “From last spring to this spring, a lot has changed within a single year, but I don’t think I would change a single thing.”

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporters can be reached at lauren.brensel@ufl.edu and sandovalv@ufl.edu and jaredteitel@ufl.edu. You can donate to support the students here.


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