Board of Trustees member Gerald Grant Jr. ’78, ’89 still remembers the impact that guest speakers and their tidbits of advice had on him as a student at FIU.
It was those classroom experiences that inspired Grant, a former president of the FIU Alumni Association, to pioneer an initiative that seeks to replicate that impact — on a larger scale — for today’s students.
And so it was that Feb. 3-7 students across FIU’s multiple campuses heard from more than 130 alumni returning to campus to visit classrooms for the first ever Panther Alumni Week (PAW). The branch director of financial planning for AXA Advisors, LLC-South Florida Branch, Grant himself spoke to approximately 200 finance students taking FIN 3403, sharing his own insights with them.
In addition to giving back to students, PAW 2014 offered a forum for alumni to re-engage with their university.
“Many of the alums are glad we reached out to them [to give them] an opportunity to come back to FIU. They’re amazed to see the growth of the campus as opposed to what it was when they left,” Grant said. “At the same time, they’re glad to be able to come back and share their experiences. And that’s what it’s all about – it’s Panthers giving back to Panthers.”
Many alumni were invited by their former teachers to speak to students while others signed up on their own and spoke to freshman experience courses. Others participated in panel discussions that touched upon a wide range of topics that included the importance of networking and creating work-life balance.
Studio artist and FIU alumnus Cristina Molina was excited to make the trip back to Miami from New Orleans, where she is an assistant professor of new media and animation at Southeastern Louisiana University.
“I was eager to come back and speak because when I was an undergraduate here one of the ways I felt I learned the most was through guest speakers,” said Molina, who graduated from FIU with bachelor’s degrees in psychology (’08) and fine art (’09).
She was excited to share with students the rewards and challenges of pursuing a career in art, encouraging them to take a practical and passionate approach to their work.
“You have to continue to work at it even if you feel at times that it is difficult or you question yourself,” Molina said. “You need confidence that over time you will find solutions for yourself.”
Faculty members such as Stanislaw Wnuk, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, jumped at the chance to invite back former student Carlos Valdez.
Valdez, now a chemist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, graduated from FIU in 2000 with a B.S. in chemistry and worked closely with Wnuk while he was a student.
Despite being on opposite sides of the country, the two have kept in contact through the years. Valdez happily embraced the opportunity to reconnect face-to-face and encourage students in the process.
“I taught him chemistry, he taught me how to [acclimate] to Miami. He was one of my most productive students that I’ve ever had, and I’ve been blessed to have many of them,” Wnuk said of Valdez. “Alumni can show students where they could go and what they can achieve with an FIU background and education.”
Students throughout the week learned a great deal about what a potential career in their field of study looks like.
Sophomore Aneishia Richardson, who is majoring in social work, attended the Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work’s “Beyond the Degree – Network Matters” panel discussion Feb. 5. She was one of those students. She actively took notes as she listened to advice and stories from professionals working in the field she wants to eventually break into.
“I normally wouldn’t be able to hear from professionals that are doing what I want to do and what I’m passionate about. I wouldn’t have the chance to listen to their advice or hear their expertise,” Richardson said. “The fact that they took the time to speak to us is very valuable. I was letting everyone who I knew know about it. Networking is valuable for every job. You have to connect with someone in order to really be successful.”
Panther Alumni Week concluded with a Feb. 7 reception in the Graham Center Ballrooms for alumni, faculty, students and staff.
Grant hopes that PAW can become an annual tradition at FIU that cultivates a culture of engagement and generosity among the alumni community.
“Panther Alumni Week is an opportunity for every alum to give back,” Grant said. “There are many ways to do that, but giving your time and sharing your experience is much more valuable. You don’t realize the impact you actually make on a student just by giving them a few tidbits on how to be successful.”