Driven and talented, FIU grads beat the odds

U.S National Security Advisor Ambassador Susan Rice to serve as commencement speaker 
FIU commencement ceremonies being held May 7- 11.

Shonda and Shalisha Witherspoon are black women pursuing engineering careers, a field where minority women are underrepresented. They are also identical twins.

They grew up in a family of six children and discovered their love of technology through their oldest brother. Even though the family struggled to pay for college, Shonda and Shalisha were undeterred and followed their dream to get a degree in information technology. The Witherspoon twins, 25, plan to pursue graduate degrees at FIU in computer science and dream of working in Japan one day as software engineers–creating games or the next popular mobile app.

This chapter in their academic careers comes to an end on Monday May 9, at 10 a.m.,when they graduate with the highest undergraduate GPA in the College of Engineering and Computing — 3.95.

The Witherspoons are among 5,000 FIU graduates this semester who will celebrate their accomplishments in 10 ceremonies. One of the highlights will be Wednesday, May 11 at 10 a.m., when National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice speaks to graduates of the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs. In her current role, Ambassador Rice oversees the National Security Council Staff, chairs the Cabinet level National Security Principals Committee, provides the president’s daily national security briefing, and is responsible for the coordination and integration of the administration’s foreign policy, intelligence, and military efforts. She previously was one of the longest-serving U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations, where she served as the U.S. Permanent Representative from 2009-2013.

“We have a star-studded commencement season this year with speakers who are shaping our world and graduates who are already making a difference,” said FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg. “Every time an FIU student receives a degree and gets a job, our community is lifted and our world is more hopeful.”

During the ceremonies, a group of standout students will be recognized as Worlds Ahead graduates. In addition to the Witherspoon twins, Worlds Ahead students include:

  • Daniel Rodriguez was born in Colombia, lived through violence associated with the drug trade and came to the U.S. with his family when he was 7 years old. Rodriguez, 22, learned English and developed a strong interest in understanding economics. He participated in FIU’s first financial literacy program for high school students, and entered the university as a finance major in 2012. He immersed himself in co-curricular activities, worked in the Financial Literacy Lab and led programs that taught skills to over 1,000 underprivileged high school students in 30 schools around Miami. Rodriguez also competed in both national and international case competitions in banking and investing, bringing FIU three first place awards. Working closely with FIU Business’ Student Managed Investment Fund faculty director Flavio Carrillo, Rodriguez founded the first ever Fixed Income Fund. He has had summer internships with AXA Advisors, PwC LLP and J.P. Morgan Chase. After receiving several offers, he accepted a position from J.P. Morgan Chase to join their Investment Banking Analyst program, in their New York City headquarters, upon graduation at 3 p.m. on Monday, May 9.
  • Shelley Reeder, 27, was diagnosed with hydrocephalus at just 5 months of age. Characterized by an excessive amount of fluid in the head, the condition can place harmful pressure on the brain. Hydrocephalus causes painful headaches, nausea, poor balance and lethargy. To alleviate these symptoms Reeder underwent surgery at just 8 months of age and would undergo at least 10 more procedures. The path for Reeder has never been easy, but with the help of her family and loved ones, she learned to walk and talk and was able to attend school and excel academically. She is graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s in special education. Reeder says she chose a career in special education because every child should have the same opportunities she had to pursue an education. Reeder will graduate Tuesday, May 10, at 10 a.m.
  • Anthon Samuel’s life changed forever just four days before his eighth birthday, when he saw his father shot and killed outside of his Opa-locka home. But Samuel did not allow this traumatic event to derail him. One of seven children raised by his mother and grandmother, he decided he would make his family proud through his love for education and football. At 23, he is a running back for the FIU football team. He earned an athletic scholarship and maintained a high GPA despite a demanding schedule and almost seeing his collegiate football career cut short because of injuries. A young father himself, Samuel draws his inspiration from his 4-year-old son. He plans to attend graduate school, possibly the nurse practitioner program. Samuel will graduate with a Bachelor of Health Services Administration on Saturday, May 7, at 2 p.m.

Other commencement speakers will be:

  • Mohsin H. Jaffer, family practitioner, philanthropist and former voluntary clinical assistant professor in the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 7. 
  • William P. Murphy Jr, chairman of the board of U.S. Stem Cell Inc., at 10 a.m., Monday, May 9.
  • John McKibbon, chairman of the McKibbon Hotel Group Inc., at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, May 10.

During the commencement ceremonies, the following community members will be honored:

  • Malcolm Butters ’83, president and co-founder of Butters Construction & Development, Inc., will receive the FIU Medallion for Outstanding Alumni at 3 p.m. on Monday, May 9.
  • Mine Üçer, an advocate for FIU’s Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, will receive the FIU Medallion for University Service, at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, May 10.
  • Marcia Jo Zerivitz, founding executive director of the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, will receive an honorary degree: Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, May 11.

For a full commencement schedule, click here. All ceremonies will take place at the FIU Arena, located in the Modesto A. Maidique Campus, 11200 SW 8th Street in West Miami-Dade.