Elta Desvaristes had always planned to go to college, but she and her family didn’t know how they would afford it. Then Elta learned she’d been accepted to the University of Florida’s Bernie and Chris Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars Program.
“The day I received the letter from Florida Opportunity Scholars one of my dreams came true,” Elta said. “Four years later, I walked across the stage as a first-generation college student debt-free. I am so thankful for this opportunity.”
The Florida Opportunity Scholars program was established in 2006 to support college freshmen who are the first in their families to attend college. It provides full grant and scholarship packages to students whose families earn less than $40,000 a year. The program also offers a leadership academy, peer mentors and workshops on financial literacy and career and life planning.
Florida Opportunity Scholars is funded by UF, the state of Florida and private donations. To date, the program has supported approximately 2,300 first-generation students from families with low income.
Elta is one of 12 Florida Opportunity Scholars who graduated May 4 from the College of Public Health and Health Professions’ bachelor’s in health science degree program. Several of them shared their post-graduation plans and their thoughts on the Florida Opportunity Scholars program.
Elta Desvaristes will begin master’s in public health studies this fall. She has long planned to become a physician and this career goal was re-affirmed two years ago when a close family member was diagnosed with a serious illness.
“Because of this life-changing event, my interest in public health also increased and this is why I am pursuing my M.P.H. before going on to medical school,” she said.
Thanhnga Doan has been admitted to the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine’s SELECT MD program, which trains medical students to become physician leaders.
“The Florida Opportunity Scholars program has played a monumental role in my success at the University of Florida,” she said. “At the end of the day, my parents always say that my only job is being a student. The FOS program made that a reality.”
CoCynthia Hodge plans to enroll in a master’s degree program in occupational therapy by next summer. She would eventually like to open a children’s therapy center.
“Without the FOS program I wouldn’t have had this opportunity,” she said. “I owe all of my achievements and success to this program, and I want to go as far as possible with my education and career so I can give back one day.”
Heather Loran will take a year off to work as a medical assistant and gain more patient contact hours before beginning a master’s degree program in physician assistant studies.
“FOS has opened doors to allow me to network with health care professionals and gain insight into my future career choice,” she said. “Because my family did not have the means to send me to college without the FOS program, I do not know where I would be today.”
Takeshia Pierre begins nursing studies this summer in Ocala. She would eventually like to complete a master’s degree in nursing and public health from Emory University. Her goal is to become a public health nurse practitioner with a focus on HIV.
“If I did not have a Florida Opportunity Scholarship I strongly doubt my experience at the University of Florida would have been a smooth one,” she said. “I am forever grateful for their help, and I will use my knowledge to make a difference in the future.”
Ashley Plowden plans to attend medical school and go on to become a pediatrician serving primarily rural and underserved areas.
“With FOS I was able to entirely focus on school without worrying about finances,” she said. “FOS also provided me with many other opportunities that I don’t think I would have otherwise had, such as having a peer mentor, making friends (also FOS scholars) and networking with various UF faculty and staff.”
Jannae White begins the UF College of Nursing’s accelerated bachelor’s in nursing program this summer. She plans to go on to earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and work as a nurse practitioner.
“FOS has been a huge support financially, which has led to the relief of not having to find a way to fund my education and not burden my mom financially or mentally,” she said. “Knowing that the donors and everyone else involved with FOS believe enough in us, scholars, to invest their time and/or money in us is very encouraging.”
Wenyan Wu plans to take a year off before starting medical school. During the gap year she will volunteer at non-profit health care organizations and continue providing free Mandarin-language interpretation services for Chinese patients at a nearby hospital.
“My career goal is to become a primary care physician,” she said. “I want to promote education on preventable diseases and help to reduce health disparities among the underserved communities. With this goal in mind, I want to obtain an M.D./M.P.H. degree because it will improve my knowledge of practicing medicine on a community basis.”