Pedro Cordon and Jolene Fan met during their sophomore year in a math class and quickly bonded over the struggles of being computer engineering majors and their love for Pollo Tropical.
Their friendship eventually developed into a romance, and as they prepared to graduate together in the fall of 2014 they wondered where they would end up after college.
Like most FIU students, Cordon was born and raised in Miami. Fan, on the other hand, had swapped Southern California for South Florida to study at FIU, where her father had once been a professor.
So they made a plan: Whichever of the two got the first job offer, the other would follow.
“One piece of advice my father gave to me was that as a couple, if you want to go somewhere together, you have to be willing to compromise,” Jolene says. “We both cast our net as wide as possible and had no fear in terms of where we were going.”
Both applied for jobs across the country, and Cordon landed the first offer, for a senior development engineer with a computer data storage company in Southern California. And so the two relocated.
Since then they have gotten married—they are now the Cordons—Jolene found a job in her field, each completed FIU’s online master’s in computer engineering with a concentration in network security and together they purchased a home in Orange County.
“I thought I was going to stay in Florida my whole life,” Pedro says. “But coming from FIU and South Florida, which is so diverse, has really helped me out here and given me a leg up in my career. It’s helped me dream bigger dreams.”
Many other recent graduates and young alumni are beginning to do the same.
While the vast majority of FIU alumni continue to choose to live and work in Miami after graduating, more and more alumni like the Cordons are moving elsewhere. They’re moving to cities like Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., in greater numbers.
FIU now boasts over 215,000 alumni, many living and working in South Florida. But just over 33,000 alumni live and work outside of the state.
Duane Wiles, associate vice president and executive director of the Alumni Association, has noticed that alumni are gaining influence in industries like technology, hospitality and entertainment around the country. The result is more and more people around the country recognizing FIU as an up-and-coming institution at the national level.
“When I traveled in the past, a lot of people asked, ‘What is FIU?’ But now, more and more people see me wearing an FIU shirt or my lapel pin and more of them know what FIU is,” Wiles says. “Alumni around the country can help elevate the brand of FIU and share the story of FIU wherever they go.”
A seasoned human resources professional, Jose Tomas ’92, MS ’03 agrees that FIU is on the rise nationally and that graduates are increasingly on the move, especially younger alumni who are more willing to leave home and start their careers someplace new.
“A few years ago you didn’t see many FIU graduates outside of South Florida. Today, I’m seeing more of them in other cities,” says Tomas, currently the senior vice president of global human resources at General Motors. “There seems to be a greater appetite for recent graduates to leave South Florida.”
According to the Alumni Association, more than a quarter (27 percent) of all Panther alumni living outside of Florida graduated in the last 10 years. The class of 2012 has the most graduates outside of the Sunshine State (1,156).
Growing out-of-town alumni chapters
As more alumni move out of South Florida, alumni chapters – called FIU Alumni Panther Networks – in major metropolitan areas continue to grow and flourish. They play an increasingly important role in helping alumni make valuable connections and feel at home in their new cities.
Arianna Graterol ’13 moved to Houston in 2014 when her husband, who is also an FIU graduate, got an information technology job there. Neither of them knew a soul in the city, but got connected to the Metro Houston Panther Network. That group boasts 500 alumni and led to many valuable personal and professional connections that have helped the couple navigate life in their adopted city. They even purchased a home with a realtor who was married to an FIU alumnus.
Graterol became the president of the network in the summer of 2017 and says the alumni networks play a pivotal role in helping FIU alumni stay connected with the university and with each other.
“You never know who you are going to meet,” says Graterol. “We have people from all walks of walk, from engineers to lawyers, who share this common connection and can serve as a resource for the goals we want to accomplish. It creates a special community.”
Taking my talents to…
The factors for leaving South Florida vary depending on the alumni you talk to. For many, including Tomas, the industries they want to work in led them to pursue jobs in different parts of the country.
Tomas was born in Puerto Rico but moved to Miami when he was in sixth grade and called the city home for three decades. Over the course of his career, he worked for some of South Florida’s most recognizable companies.
His first job was bagging groceries at Publix as a 15-year-old Coral Gables Senior High student. He continued to work there as he pursued a business administration degree at FIU and eventually worked his way up to a human resources specialist during his 17 years with the company. He moved on to Ryder System, Inc. and then Burger King Corp., where he became president for the chain’s Latin America and Caribbean region.
“The reality is that South Florida has a limited number of large employers and I worked for two of the largest,” Tomas says. “I knew that I would have to leave Miami if I wanted to work for a larger company.”
That’s when Indianapolis-based Anthem, Inc., a health insurance company and a Fortune 500 employer, brought Tomas on as their new chief human resources officer in 2013. In July 2017, Tomas moved to Detroit to work for General Motors.
“Not everything is here in Miami or Fort Lauderdale,” Wiles says. “We have alumni who go to Seattle and San Francisco and are working at Boeing or Google. They are helping companies learn more about FIU and hire more of our graduates. Our alumni put FIU on their radar.”
A new adventure
For others, the thrill of starting somewhere new or blazing their own trail led them to move hundreds or thousands of miles away from South Florida.
In Melanie Leonard’s case, a combination of both lured her to the Big Apple.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in advertising from FIU in 2013 and finishing Miami Ad School’s master’s degree program two years later, she landed a freelance gig at Young & Rubicam, one of the world’s largest advertising agencies based in New York City.
On the plane ride up to New York, “I felt that this was the start of something new, a chance and opportunity to do something I love in a city that I never dreamed of living in,” Leonard recalls. “I was very hopeful and excited to see where this would lead.”
What began as a two-week project eventually led to the offer of a full-time position as a copywriter, which Leonard accepted.
The decision to leave Miami was not an easy one, however. Leonard had interned in Orlando, New York and San Francisco during her time at FIU and Miami Ad School, but South Florida was still home.
“My mom still asks me when I’m coming back every day, and that’s not an exaggeration,” Leonard says. “I love South Florida and would’ve stayed if I could, but it’s just not New York City.”
New York offered her an opportunity to reach for more, and two years after making the move she has no regrets.
“I wanted to challenge myself and see how I’d stack up in America’s hardest working city. I wanted to jumpstart my career, and I saw that the opportunities were more abundant and the projects were on a larger scale in New York,” says Leonard, who works with national clients such as Hillshire Farms, Ball Park Franks and PETA.
“Moving was a huge deal, but the time to take that chance was now. And I’m glad I did. This is a dream job.”
Now more than ever, other alumni are willing to do the same.