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Student & Alumni Success Stories

From a Dream to a Degree

Melissa Hernandez didn't think college was an option for her.

Born in Toluca, Mexico, Hernandez's parents brought her to the United States when she was just four years old. They made their home in Naples and have remained ever since.

Being so young, the transition to life in the U.S. was not too challenging for Hernandez, and she attended ESOL classes when she began elementary school.

"I would speak Spanish at home and English at school," said Hernandez. "As I became more fluent, I was able to help translate for my parents. I noticed as I got older that my English became better than my Spanish."

With her dad working in construction and her mom staying home to raise her and her younger siblings, Hernandez always just assumed that once she graduated from high school, she would go directly to work.

At the urging of her eighth grade English teacher, Hernandez applied to Lorenzo Walker Technical High School. Originally, she was interested in cosmetology, but her teacher encouraged her to look into nursing.

"Nursing requires patience and caring, and he saw that in me and thought it would be a good fit."

Then in 2012, everything changed. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, allowing some people who arrived in the United States as children to apply for deferred action every two years and also make them eligible for work authorization.

"DACA meant I could go to college," Hernandez said.

While at Lorenzo Walker Technical High School, Hernandez earned her Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), and though she had the opportunity to sit for her Licensed Practical Nursing (LPN) exam, she decided to continue on to earn her degree.

"I knew I wasn't ready just yet to sit for the licensing exam or make the commitment," she said.

She applied for DACA status and began exploring colleges. Ultimately, Florida SouthWestern State College (FSW) fit everything she was looking for.

"The classes are small, and FSW's faculty want you to succeed and they are willing to help," she said. "It's not as intimidating as some of the larger universities."

As a DACA student, Hernandez is not eligible for federal financial aid, and she pays for school on her own.

"FSW is affordable," she said. "My dad helps me with some of the costs, and I have to work part-time, but the Tuition Installment Plan (TIP) at FSW really helps make paying for my tuition manageable."

To pay for her tuition, Hernandez applied for a work permit, and FSW helped her find a job on the Collier Campus working as a student assistant at the reception desk, answering student questions and providing college information to visitors. A workforce training program through CareerSource also helps her with the costs associated with earning her nursing degree.

But Hernandez also found something even greater at FSW. Acceptance.

"It's scary to tell people about your immigration status," Hernandez said. "At first, I was terrified to tell anyone I was a dreamer, but at FSW, I never felt judged. FSW accepts you like family."

Hernandez earned her Associate in Arts degree in 2018, and the skills and knowledge she developed while working as a student assistant at the reception desk gave her the confidence she needed to apply for a part-time, professional position in FSW's admissions office. She got the job, and now she assists other students finding their way through their first college steps.

"As a first-generation college student I didn't have the knowledge or guidance about college that many students have from their families," Hernandez said. "Through my experience, I can now help guide other students and my younger siblings' on their path to college."

Hernandez has to reapply for her DACA status every two years.

"It's expensive and stressful because you never know if they are going to accept your application, but it is worth it."

Hernandez will graduate from the Associate in Science in Nursing (ASN) degree program at FSW this December. She plans to continue on to earn her Bachelors in Science in Nursing (BSN) degree at FSW, and then possibly continue on to her earn master's degree.

"My parents always told me my education comes first, no matter the cost," she said. "They came to the U.S. to give me a better future. My goal is to continue to make them proud."

Melissa Hernandez.

Tony Peterson

Lucky for most of us, the paths we travel are not set in stone. When FSW alumnus Tony Peterson decided to change his path, he had no idea how far it would lead him.

Originally a high school dropout, Tony decided to earn his GED after a gunshot wound dramatically altered his life.

"I wasn't doing right," said Tony. "I needed to choose a different path than the one that led me to this chair."

Tony found the support he needed at then Edison State College to continue on to earn his college degree.

"It was a great campus and atmosphere," he said. "The campus is small and that helped make the transition to college easier for me."

"The people were also a great help," he said. "Angie Hartsell in Adaptive Services is so passionate about what she does. She sticks up for her office and her clients. She will get you anything you want, but she makes sure you do the work for it. She doesn't give handouts to anybody. Dr. Christine Davis helped me when I struggled with conflicts. She took the time to listen to me and to understand me. From the cafeteria staff, to the professors, to the administration, the people just made it so easy to be here."

Tony graduated debt-free from FSW (Edison) in 2012 with his associates degree and a 3.9 GPA.

"I was a high school dropout, and when they handed me my honors cord at graduation, I never thought I would ever have something like that," he said.

Tony went on to continue his education, and in December 2018, he graduated with his master's degree in social work from Barry University.

"I never thought going back for my GED would lead to a graduate degree, but when I start something, I want to complete it."

Tony is now on the job hunt and hopes to one day open his own practice. He offered some advice to new and current FSW students.

"Become involved in activities and get to know the campus," Tony said. "Learn about the resources the college has to offer, whether educational, administrative or career-based, and use them to the fullest. And most importantly, come in with great expectations, set your bar high, stick to it, and enjoy the ride." #FSWSuccess #FSWAlumni

Tony Peterson.

Tapanga Garrett

They say there are two types of people in life, dreamers and doers. FSW student Tapanga Garrett is definitely a doer.

"I have always made up stories in my head," Garrett said, but it was after reading a short story her mom wrote that Garrett felt confident to put a story onto paper.

With her mom's encouragement, Garrett wanted to expand the short story into a full-length book. After more than a year of writing, she had completed the 300-page manuscript and titled it "Unnaturals."

"Unnaturals" tells the story of private detective, Izaboe Campos, who is on the hunt to find a murderer. The book has all the makings of a fun, fantasy tale including vampires, werewolves and gargoyles. Izaboe even has a supernatural secret of her own.

But then came the hard part…how to get the book published. The answer came through Garrett's Cornerstone Experience class at the FSW Charlotte Campus.

Cornerstone Professor April Ring invited self-published author, S.E. Smith, to speak to the class about careers in writing, and following that class, Garrett reached out to Smith.

"She showed me how to get started and helped me through the steps to publish on my own," Garrett said. "If it wasn't for that Cornerstone class, I would still be waiting for an agent."

"Unnaturals" published on Amazon in January, and Garrett is now working on the sequel.

Garrett has some advice for anyone who is hesitant to give their dream a chance.

"You might as well try," she said. "The worst thing that can happen is that it doesn't work out, but it's better to try and fail than to not try and always wonder what would have happened if you had."

Tapanga Garrett.

Rafael Columbie Sees Success through Honors Scholar Program

My name is Rafael Alejandro Columbie, I am a 23-year-old husband and freshly minted father who, after dropping out of college at the age of 18, got the crazy idea to go back to school to become a neurosurgeon; as if this would somehow be easier with a child, a wife, and a mortgage. My passion for healing others was awakened just over a year ago when I lost my right leg in a motorcycle accident. That night I surely thought my life would come to an end, but by some odd twist of fate, the gentleman who had struck me with his vehicle was a doctor. With his help and that of the group of medical professionals that saw to my wounds, I was able to continue my young life. While I was in the ICU there were two other young men (both approximately twenty years of age) who had also been brought in for motorcycle accidents; one lost both his legs, while the other lost his life. I consider myself fortunate. Thus, from that moment on, I felt compelled to devote my life to save that of others; for the memory of those of us who weren't so fortunate. But, sobering tragedy aside, I devote what time I have left outside of school and my family to martial arts, Jiu-Jitsu in particular; there is something oddly satisfying about besting my fellow two-legged humans in hand to hand combat (on the rare occasions that I do).

Has your involvement in the FSW Honors Scholar Program (HSP) made a difference in your overall educational experience here?

Although I was apprehensive of joining HSP at first, by virtue of my age (silly I know, I am only 23), it has enriched my educational experience far beyond my greatest hopes. FSW's HSP is a stellar example of excellence and passion, the likes of which I had not before seen. After only a few months into my first semester as an FSW honors student, I was granted the opportunity to present at the Florida Collegiate Honors Conference, all graciously sponsored by the college. The experience was enriching beyond any-thing I could've hoped for. I, a former college dropout, now have a 4.00 GPA and a reignited passion for education and for what the future may hold. A future that seems exceedingly bright may I add, because only a few days ago I received a letter in the mail from Columbia University, inviting me to apply. This could not have been possible had it not been for the resources, support, and genuine encouragement so generously provided by FSW's HSP.

To all FSW students, keep moving forward. See your educational endeavors through to the end, and be the change that you want to see in the world.

Has your involvement in HSP made a difference in your overall educational experience here?

HSP has been extremely beneficial to my education. It gave me a second chance at taking my education seriously, something I didn't do in high school. It gave me opportunities like going to conferences, smaller classes, and better access to grants and scholarships. Most importantly, HSP has given me confidence that I could go anywhere after FSW and every possibly is within reach.

What advice would you offer to all FSW students?

School provides more than homework and diplomas and more than academic resources. The chance to network on a college campus is better than most other places; you can easily find someone that knows something you don't, someone that's further along with the career you both share, and definitely potential friends.

Luis Munoz

BAS, Supervision and Management - 2018

FSW graduate Luis Munoz redefines the idea that our graduates fly high. A third generation Human Cannonball, he earned a Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) in Supervision and Management in 2018. Luis completed his degree online while living in Spain and managing his own business.

Luis Munoz.

Faculty & Staff Success Stories

Jackie Beard

FSW Student Engagement Coordinator Jackie Beard was recently awarded the 2019 FCSSGA Region 4 Advisor of the Year award and the Bob Graham Distinguished Service Award for SGA Advisors.

The Advisor of the Year Award is given to a nominated advisor who has provided distinguished service to their Campus Student Government. The Bob Graham Distinguished Service Award is given to a nominated advisor for outstanding support of their campus SGA.

"There were key teachers, advisors, and staff members that helped me throughout my educational journey," Beard said. "Their compassion and willingness caused me to develop a strong desire to help students once I became an educator. I could not repay them for the support and resources they provided, but I promised them to help every student I could for the rest of my life. As a SGA advisor, it is part of my commitment and dedication to help students reach their personal and professional goals. Because of individuals that supported and motivated me, I will forever be compassionate and strive to make a difference in student lives. When I retire, I want to look back and say I made a difference and have lived a life fulfilling my purpose."

Jackie Beard.

FSW Law Professor Pens Children's Book

Law and college success professor Sandi Towers has taught at Florida SouthWestern State College (FSW) for years using textbooks she's written on the legal ins and outs of real estate, media, and the hospitality industry, but this year she published her first children's book, "Sandi and the Ladybug."

From Prolance Book Publishing in California, the book follows Walter the ladybug as he searches for his home back at the farm.

"This is based on a true story, when I found a ladybug on some lettuce I brought home," said Towers. "I named the ladybug Walter because it's a strong name and to point out the fact that there are boy ladybugs."

For this project Towers worked with Teresa Abboud, a Georgia-based illustrator and 2D animator, to bring Walter to life as well as the characters of Sandi and her father. Towers said the process of writing the book took 10 years and five drafts.

"This project was a whole decade of my life. The rule of thumb is that children's books need to be under 1,000 words and ‘Sandi and the Ladybug' is at 480. The story has two narrative arcs, which are resolved by the end, and it has teachable moments for children between the ages of 2-7."

Because teaching is her passion, on June 4 she'll be bringing "Sandi and the Ladybug" into FSW children's literature classes taught by Dr. Caroline Seefchak in the School of Education. Towers wants to work with students earning their degrees in elementary education so they can teach the youngest generation that all creatures big or small, or even as small as a ladybug, should be honored and cherished.

As part of this mission to cherish all living things, Towers will be presenting her book at the Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium's Earth Day celebration on Saturday, April 27, as well as on May 4 for "School's Out Day" and June 1 for "Foster Kid's Day." The book is for sale at the FSW Buc Store, Calusa Nature Center, and Barnes & Noble in Fort Myers Market Square. She'll be hosting multiple "Storytimes" this summer at Barnes & Noble.

"Sandi and the Ladybug" is also available for sale online at Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, Amazon, and Books-A-Million. Towers said she's also in the process of publishing her second children's book with Prolance Book Publishing, "The Adventures of Dusty the Tortoise and Tickles the Camel," another true story based on her pet tortoise Dusty.

Dr. Sandi Towers-Romero.

Psychology and Revolution

When FSW Political Science Professor Dr. Bruno Baltodano was a nine-year-old boy, his father, Richard Vargas, was killed in the Nicaraguan Revolution. A picture of his father hangs prominently in his office. The events surrounding nine-year-old Baltodano would go on to shape his future.

His history with Nicaragua and the lack of information on female fighters in the Nicaraguan Revolution led to a book collaboration with his coauthors, Martín Meráz García and Martha L. Cottam, titled: "The Role of Female Combatants in the Nicaraguan Revolution and Counter Revolutionary War," published in 2019 by Rutledge Books.

This book is an exploratory study based on 85 first-hand accounts of female ex-combatants who fought in the Nicaraguan Revolution and Counter Revolutionary War from the 1960s to the 1980s. Dr. Baltodano spent more than a year and several trips to Nicaragua and the Atlantic Coast gathering the necessary data for his work. Drawing from political psychology, "The Role of Female Combatants in the Nicaraguan Revolution and Counter Revolutionary War" explores the sacrifices women fighters made, their ideology, gender stereotypes and images, and ethnic, racial and national identities.

When asked what is the most important thing he hopes people understand about his book, Dr. Baltodano explained, "Gender is not a monolith. Women and men are more alike than they think, and the desire to make change goes beyond gender."

Dr. Baltodano teaches classes on international relations, terrorism and political violence, comparative politics, and American government.

He has a doctorate and a master's degree in political science from Washington State University and a bachelor's degree in government from Eastern Washington University. His academic research centers on insurgencies with a central focus on indigenous land rights and political violence in Nicaragua.

Dr. Baltodano's publications include: "The Role of Female Combatants in the Nicaraguan Revolutions and Counter Revolutionary War," published in 2019 by Rutledge Books; contributing writer in "Confronting Al-Qaeda: The Sunni Awakening and American Strategy in Al-Anbar," published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefiled; a chapter in "Trends in Policing: Interviews with Police leaders Across the Globe," a book edited by Otwin Marenin; a chapter in "The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: War Coverage and Peace Journalism," a book edited by Wilhem Kempf; as well as journal articles appearing in Conflict and Communication and Latin American Policy.

Dr. Bruno Baltodano.

Wendie Thompson

NISOD Award Winner

When Wendie Thompson was announced as the 2019 NISOD Staff Excellence Award winner during FSW's annual President's State of the College event, she wasn't sure they were talking about her.

"I couldn't believe my name was called," Thompson said. "I was in shock and just sat for a second making sure it was me."

Thompson is an administrative assistant for FSW's School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and the recipient of the 2019 National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) Staff Excellence Award.

Every year, NISOD honors college staff and administrators who have demonstrated an outstanding commitment and contribution to students and colleagues at their institution. Thompson plans to represent FSW at the annual NISOD conference in Austin, TX, in May.

Thompson has worked at FSW for 10 years, and the nomination letters her fellow employees wrote for her prove why she is so deserving.

"Wendie allows the faculty, the rest of the staff across the college and me to help our students to be successful because she does her job so well."

"Wendie has an astounding capacity for, and tolerance of, the hundreds of interruptions that are endemic to the office of a dean. She greets each new distraction with good cheer and calm attention to detail. She is rarely allowed a moment of peace, and yet through this maelstrom, manages to accomplish an astounding volume of work each day. Contracts, scheduling, flummoxed students, errant faculty and desperate deans are all taken in turn and treated with kindness, competence and grace."

"Wendie takes time to find the best method for completing all tasks. I have asked her on numerous occasions to provide training for my team. We hired a new, part-time operations associate who needed to get up and running during a busy time of year, and Wendie graciously offered to sit with her and provide any assistance she needed. Her contributions to the college are invaluable!"

Thompson credits her dad for instilling in her to go above and beyond when helping people.

"What we do here is important," Thompson said. "I enjoy coming to work every morning and working with the people here. Everyone really cares about our students and our programs. I was humbled to be recognized, and it's amazing to know that people appreciate what I do."

Wendie Thompson.