GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The pandemic left a stain on the college experience for students.

For the class of 2022, their time was split in halves – virtual and in-person. College students adapted to “distanced” and classroom learning while routinely being administered COVID-19 tests. Students traded their extracurricular activities, sports games and parties for endless Zoom meetings and masks. Some dealt with academic responsibilities while sick with the virus. Many lost loved ones. 

Despite maneuvering through college classes during a global health crisis, graduates across Florida universities pushed toward the finish line. While the coronavirus injected “what ifs” into their memories, others adapted, pivoted and realigned their goals.

Here are the stories of students being lauded by Florida’s universities during graduation season for overcoming obstacles, generational cycles and adversity to make their way to the graduation stage.

Child of immigrants

Ashley Gonzalez-Ferraro, 20, started at Florida State University when she was 17. She’s the daughter of two Colombian immigrants, and her father was deported when she was 6.

Growing up, she lived with her grandmother and her mother, who worked 80 hours a week to support her and her brother. She remembers assuring her mom she would find a way to attend college knowing that her family couldn’t afford it.

“As a child of immigrants, there’s always one that you know is the person that has to show the face for the family, has to do something and has to sustain the family in the future, and I was always that kid that had to do something,” she said. 

She earned her associate’s degree, knowing it would boost her chances of attending a university. She applied to FSU’s Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement, which offers financial support for low-income and first-generation students through scholarships. 

When she applied to the center, Gonzalez thought she was joining a campus club and was unaware of the program’s full benefits. Little did she know that it could help her fulfill a lifelong dream to go to college free of charge. 

She was accepted into the program and earned a dual degree in international affairs and criminology in three years. She will pursue a master’s degree in criminology and hopes to attend an Ivy League law school. Asked what her dream job would be, she laughed and said becoming attorney general of the United States. 

“I mean, that would be amazing,” she said. 

A mother of three – and a student

Jeanette-Marie Reynoso stepped onto her first college campus in fall 2006, with a garbage bag full of clothes and her personal documents. At Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, she watched as parents showered their children with hugs, kisses and brand-new everything. She was a foster kid who had aged out of the system with no guidance in life, let alone about college.

In her first year, Reynoso was failing. She withdrew from classes, joined AmeriCorps to teach for a year and became a wife and mother to three. Reynoso, who is 35, and her husband moved to Florida in 2007, and she returned to school four years ago, aiming to join her youngest child as he entered kindergarten.

An academic adviser at Seminole State College in central Florida asked why she was returning to school after so many years and told her, “If you failed once, you’ll probably fail again,” Reynoso recalled the adviser saying.

She proved that adviser wrong. She graduated with a 4.0 grade point average and transferred to the University of Central Florida in January 2020. Balancing being a mom and a college student was tough; she only attended classes Wednesdays.

Three weeks into her first semester, the global pandemic hit. She remained involved. She became a Ronald McNair Scholar, joined summer research programs at Vanderbilt University, accepted a full-time internship at an elementary school and received a job offer as a teacher. 

Her greatest achievement is breaking the generational cycle, she said. Being the daughter of a teenage mom and having grown up in the foster system, Reynoso lives by the adage, “progress over perfection.”

As she accepted the top honors from her college at UCF, her own children, wearing Knight merch, fantasized about going to college.

“I realized in that moment, ‘Oh my gosh, I broke the cycle for them’,” Reynoso said. “When they come to UCF, they’re not going to be first-gen students.”

With her degree in elementary education, she plans to enter UCF’s master’s program. In five years, Reynoso hopes to earn her doctorate from UCF and work toward becoming a superintendent.

‘A voice for the underrepresented’ 

D’Vodrek Ponder, 22, became a leader when he stepped onto Florida State University’s campus as a first-generation student and part of a program that supports minority students. Ponder found comfort and community within the Black Student Union and the school’s Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement.

As the director for the Coalition Of Black Organizational Leadership, he worked to ensure the organizations on campus received the funding, programming and tools they needed to succeed. 

During the pandemic, he served as president of the union rearranged its programming plans. His plan included drive-in movie theater events, participating in protests and other campus activities.

Ponder said college taught him to prioritize staying true to his passions by using his time and energy to care for others.

“One thing I’ve been taught is I don’t want to work my entire life, because if you really enjoy what you’re doing, it’s not really considered work,” Ponder said. “When it comes to impacting your community, uplifting one another, being a voice for the underrepresented, not being afraid to ask the hard questions and being bold in doing so has definitely prepared me to be the person I want to be.”

In a couple years, Ponder, who earned a politics science degree and a minor in African American studies, sees himself working in student affairs at an SEC university.

‘I kind of want to be the next Oprah’

Carrington Whigham, 22, graduated from a top performing arts school in Texas, opening doors to schools like Juilliard and New York University. but Tallahassee had what the Dallas native wanted: a historically black college or university. For her, continuing the family legacy of Florida Agricultural Mechanical University graduates was necessary. Her father was the student body president, a position she earned her senior year. 

With a background in the arts, Whigham entered college as a theater minor. Eventually, she gravitated to broadcast journalism, where she became a producer for FAMU-TV20, the school’s educational access cable channel, and a writer for school newspaper. 

Whigham said she believes the pandemic helped elevate her career at FAMU as opportunities were more accessible through Zoom. Throughout the last two years, she’s been a part of forums that included voting, vaccinations and social justice. 

Whigham was chosen as AT&T’s Black rising future maker, a title earned by influential HBCU students around the nation. The White House invited Whigham to speak at a COVID-19 vaccination roundtable in Tallahassee as its collegiate representative last summer.

In September, Whigham will attend the London School of Economics for a one-year dual-​​degree program for global media and communications. Then, she will head to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles to earn a dual degree program for global media and communications. 

Whigham hopes to see herself in front of a camera for a major media company using her platform to tell uplifting Black stories. 

“I kind of want to be the next Oprah,” she said.

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 Mhernandezdlc@freshtakeflorida.com and dsevares@freshtakeflorida.com. You can donate to support students www.uff.ufl.edu/giving-opportunities/025511-fresh-take-florida-support-fund.

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