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Hospitality grad shares road to success after overcoming complications from lupus, pandemic

Hospitality grad shares road to success after overcoming complications from lupus, pandemic

In this first-person piece, Aileen Ayala '20 shares how she overcame kidney nephritis (stage 5) and the pandemic's economic impact on her chosen career to follow her dream.

August 3, 2020 at 1:45pm

By Aileen Ayala '20

Just after 2 p.m. Sunday, I heard my name called by my school's dean, Michael Cheng. I jumped in joy to know I was now a graduate of the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management.

The road to get my diploma has been a challenging one, not just because of the coronavirus and the economic impact on hospitality, but because of my own personal health battle.

The summer of 2016, going into my senior year of high school at Sports Leadership and Management (SLAM) Charter school in Miami, I was diagnosed with lupus (SLE) and kidney nephritis (stage 5), which can be deadly. I underwent countless appointments and chemotherapy sessions. Two years later, I was in remission. 

I fought this disease by staying consistent with my medications and appointments, but most importantly by knowing that I was going to get better and by learning more about the disease. I found a book called “Goodbye Lupus” by Brooke Goldner, and it changed everything for me.

It has now been a year since I became vegan and I have never felt so healthy. My lupus is the most controlled it has ever been. I even have my own Instagram page, @LatinaNVegan, to share delicious vegan dishes with others. Having the support from my family is what helped me combat my own body and thanks to them and advisors at the Chaplin School, to also continue excelling in my classes.

I had the privilege of meeting some amazing people at FIU Hospitality, like Assistant Director of Career Development Katherine Martin and Academic Support Services Manager Sanjay Dhawan. They both pushed me to be a better version of myself every day and to really think about my future.

I am proud to say just like in high school, I graduated Cum Laude, and even through battling a disease, dancing professionally and working as a server, I now have a Bachelor of Science in Hospitality Management.

This fight will be forever, but it has taught me more than I can imagine. One of them is to do what I love doing as much as I can—like dancing and traveling.

My time at FIU, like the 4,500 other graduates who got their diplomas this summer, was cut short by the pandemic, but during my time at my beloved alma mater, I made the most out of it. I have grown to love content creation, photography and marketing.

I will now begin a new path as a freelance content creator for luxury resorts, which will include a whole lot of traveling and putting myself out there; and I am super excited for the challenge. I take with me all the knowledge I gained at the school of hospitality, resiliency and a joy for life.

Congratulations, Class of 2020!


"Aileen is an amazing individual and I could not be prouder of her! Aileen instills passion in others to find their niche and helps them to achieve their ambitions and dreams, which is what makes her a truly extraordinary student. She is always smiling and finding different ways to make the best of any situation and succeed in the future."

—Sanjay Dhawan, manager for academic support services



Sister Jessica Cabrera, Aileen Ayala '20, mom Maria Manrique, and sister Helen Ayala.