ONCE A SPARTAN,
ALWAYS A SPARTAN.

ALUMNI SUCCESS STORIES


Your connections to MiraCosta College do not end when you graduate. Whether you have taken a class, completed a certificate, or earned a degree, you are considered an alumnus because once a Spartan, always a Spartan.

AARON BYZAK AARON BYZAK

AARON BYZAK


Students have left MiraCosta College with myriad measures of success, including degrees, certificates and new skills needed to boost prospects for promotion at places of employment.

Then there's Aaron Byzak. He not only earned an associate of art degree at the college, but he also met his future wife Amanda at MiraCosta College. They got married at MiraCosta College. Their son, Adam, attended day care through the Child Development Center at MiraCosta College. They live just a couple blocks from MiraCosta College. And they get their exercise playing tennis at the MiraCosta College courts.

"I can't say enough about MiraCosta College," Byzak said. "My wife professed her love for me standing on a table in the cafeteria at MiraCosta College. I'll tell you what, if MiraCosta College was a four-year college, I wouldn't have gone anywhere else to earn my bachelor's and MBA."

Yet Byzak would be the first to tell you he didn't start out as college material. He attended Cal State San Marcos for a year after graduating from Carlsbad High School in 1995, but said he was academically unprepared. So he enrolled at Palomar College to become an emergency medical technician and then went to work for American Medical Response.

"The experience made me look at health care very differently," Byzak said.

Contributing to his changing views on health care was a heart condition that led to emergency surgery when he was 20. Because he was uninsured or covered through Medi-Cal most of his life, Byzak said his condition was never properly treated. It was only when he had a job that offered a good insurance plan that he was able to get proper treatment.

"I also saw how poorly we were treating the elderly folks at assisted living facilities," said Byzak,

But he could not affect change by being an EMT for a private ambulance company. He would need to understand politics and policy and get a firm grasp about how healthcare is run as a business.

His quest began at MiraCosta College. While working full time for AMR and serving as an intern for former state Sen. Bill Morrow, Byzak attended classes at the Oceanside Campus and earned his associate degree in political science. When Byzak graduated in 2003, Morrow hired him as his health policy adviser. Byzak left AMR and worked full time for Morrow while earning his bachelor's degree in social sciences from Chapman University. When he started his MBA program at UC Irvine in 2006, the Tri-City Healthcare District hired Byzak as an assistant public affairs officer. After earning his MBA in health care management and policy, he landed at UC San Diego, where he now works as director of government and community affairs for UC San Diego Health Sciences. His responsibilities include handling all legislative and community relations activities on behalf of UC San Diego Health Systems, UCSD School of Medicine and the Skaggs School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences at UCSD.

He also founded Hazel's Army, a community-based advocacy group intended to give voice to those who have lost loved ones as the result of poor or improper care at assisted living and skilled nursing facilities. The group, which has successfully pushed for changes in state law, was named after Byzak's grandmother, Hazel Mensching, who died six days after tumbling from her wheelchair during a van tour operated by her assisted living facility.

Byzak has been presented with a 40 Under 40 Award by San Diego Metro Magazine, and in 2012 he was recognized with a Young Influentials Award from the San Diego Daily Transcript. In 2013, Byzak was chosen by San Diego Magazine as on of its 50 People to Watch.

Asked if he feels he has made a difference in reaching his goal of affecting change in the way health care is delivered, Byzak did not hesitate to answer. "Absolutely. I've gotten to work on a lot of cool stuff. Every day I go to work I get to advocate for health care policies that will allow us to more effectively take care of patients."

And MiraCosta College was where his quest began. And where his fondest memories are found.

"I met my wife my first day of school at MiraCosta in 2001," Byzak said. "She walked in the room and it was like the clouds parted and the lights shone down on her and I turned to my friend and said, `That's the girl I'm going to marry.'"

Amanda and Aaron were wed under the clock tower at the Oceanside Campus in 2005.

"We are such huge MiraCosta College fans," Byzak said, noting that his wife worked a while for Disabled Students Programs and Services at the Oceanside Campus after she graduated. "I was just up there recently to buy new MiraCosta College clothes to replace some old ones I had."

ADRIAN MANDUJANO ADRIAN MANDUJANO

ADRIAN MANDUJANO


Adrian Mandujano had long wanted to open his own business. Which is why he turned to MiraCosta College's entrepreneurship program when he went looking for the marketing and management skills to help him succeed.

Good thing. Today, Mandujano owns and operates The Movement, a successful online firm that not only sells casual apparel inspired by Latino tradition, but also stages educational events celebrating that tradition.

"The instructors I had at MiraCosta College provided me with a rigorous curriculum that was invaluable in me doing what I'm doing now," said Mandujano, who earned an associate degree at the Oceanside Campus in the spring of 2016. "Every class I've taken, from social media to web design to small business marketing, has given me an understanding and appreciation for how a business operates."

Mandujano's company stands out in the way it blends clothing with culture. Every design is unique and each tells a story. The Movement's Nahui Ollin ("four movement") print, for example, signifies a balance in the world and the perpetual movement of the universe.

"I don't just sell shirts," said Mandujano. "I also teach the meaning behind the design."

A fourth-generation Mexican-American, Mandujano said he was largely oblivious to his cultural roots while growing up in Carlsbad. That led him to join cultural dance groups, a move that proved vital in helping him learn about the history of his community and the Spanish language.

"We were always taught to adapt to the community around you," he said. "I still see a lot of that now. It seems a lot of people are scared to dive in and discover their roots."

Enrolling at MiraCosta College, Mandujano, 24, was intent on opening a clothing store that would educate the community about Aztec, Maya and other ancient civilizations. "MiraCosta was close to home, and I heard the instructors and the classes had a lot to offer," Mandujano said. "I wasn't disappointed."

At MiraCosta College, Mandujano learned how to build a website. He interviewed local business owners and went behind the scenes at Legoland to learn how to treat customers right. And he also picked up pointers on crafting a business plan and staging cultural events. He is among the reasons MiraCosta College alumni are responsible for generating more than $252 million in added income to the region each year.

He impressed more than a few professors along the way.

"I watched Adrian start with an idea, which he developed into a promotional plan during our Business Promotions class in spring 2016," said Professor Cheryl Wadeson. "From the beginning his vision was clear and far beyond selling shirts and caps. He set out to educate a community on their heritage through grassroots efforts."

Web design instructor Claudia Faulk lauded Mandujano's commitment.

"Adrian came to class with a spark of an idea simmering in his heart," she said. "He wanted to share his pride in his culture with the world. In one class he used a project to share the idea online. In another he promoted it through social media. He wanted to do more, so he came to my business and asked if he could hold an event celebrating his culture with art, music and food. I don't think he was expecting the first event to be very big, but his enthusiasm caught hold and many people came. The City of Oceanside then asked for his help to hold something similar. He held another event down in San Diego near Chicano Park. His little spark of an idea has turned into a bright flame that will light his way into the future."

Added Wadeson:

"Seeing Adrian implement his plan, connect with people literally all over the United States and beyond, and develop a social media following of fans and customers has been incredible. His commitment is relentless and I'm proud to wear my ollin camisa and share his story with other aspiring business owners."

ANDY POWERS ANDY POWERS

ANDY POWERS


Andy Powers was about 8 years old when he tried making his first guitar. It fell apart while he was tuning the strings.

"It didn’t work," Powers said with a laugh. "I didn’t realize how complicated it was, how much went into the structural design of the instrument."

No matter. Today, the MiraCosta College graduate is among the most celebrated guitar and ukulele makers around and has a following that includes the likes of Elvis Costello, Taylor Swift and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page.

"I believe Andy to be among the most talented guitar builders the world has seen," wrote Taylor Guitars owner and co-founder Bob Taylor on Powers’ website after convincing him to join the El Cajon-based company as its master luthier.

Born and raised in Oceanside, Powers was homeschooled, earned his high school diploma when he was 15, and earned an associate of arts degree in music from MiraCosta College in 2000 before transferring to UC San Diego. All the while, he was busy building a business, Andy Powers Instrument Co., which was earning a reputation for its craftsmanship.

MiraCosta College would play a key role in his life. Not just because of what he learned, but who he met.

"There were a lot of San Diego-area musicians who were teaching there at the time," said Powers, now 33. "A lot of the faculty members were working professionals who had a lot of experience and brought with them a load of enthusiasm. It was really a wonderful environment to be a part of."

Several years after graduating, Powers went to a Harvey Reid concert at MiraCosta College and found himself sitting next to the man who co-founded Taylor Guitars in 1974 and helped grow it into one of the leading makers of quality guitars in the world.

"There was this little tiny classroom that they had turned into a concert hall for the night," he says on a video recorded by the National Association of Music Merchants. "And so we sit down and were listening and then during an intermission, I look down and I think, `Gosh, I think you’re Bob Taylor, right?’"

The two ended up talking about music and building guitars. "He said if you ever need a job, come look me up," Powers said.

Before too long, Powers and Taylor were running into each other at various events and trade shows. A few years ago, Taylor called Powers with a proposition.

"He said, `So here’s the deal.’ He’s like, `I won’t be here forever and I want Taylor to be a guitar company that’s still guitar-maker driven, and I want it to be a first-generation company … Once I’m gone, who’s the guitar maker here? So he kind of just said, `Look, I’ve looked the world over and it’s like, you’re my guitar maker. So you can take as much time, take two weeks to decide, take two years. I don’t care. It’s like it’s either you or nobody.’"

Powers took the job. He has since been the subject of numerous stories detailing his craftsmanship working with one of the top guitar manufacturers in the country.

Working with wood is in Powers’ blood. His father was a carpenter. "I was always around tools and scraps of wood," said Powers, who grew up playing every style from jazz, rock and country guitar in local bands. "One day, my dad came home with a piece of wood that was big enough to make a guitar. So I decided that I would make one."

Powers didn’t factor in the tension and pressure a stringed instrument must withstand. "I didn’t realize you had to brace it and put in some structural materials so it won’t blow up on you. I just put some strings on it and started tightening it up and it literally exploded into a pile of splinters."

Powers didn’t give up. He sought advice from guitar makers, magazines and books, soaking up information and experimenting with new designs. "I learned about tool-making, woodworking, finishing, from virtually every source I could possibly learn from," he said.

It worked. Powers started his business when he was in high school, first making guitars and ukuleles for friends before branching out.

Now married with two children, Powers hasn’t forgotten MiraCosta College.

"The caliber of teachers there was excellent," Powers said. "Just a lot of talent and a lot of enthusiasm. It helped me immensely."

EDWINA WILLIAMS EDWINA WILLIAMS

EDWINA WILLIAMS


Edwina Williams has come full circle.

A single mother and one-time high school dropout, Williams’ fortunes turned upon enrolling in the Adult High School Program at MiraCosta College to secure her belated diploma. One associate degree, one bachelor’s degree and one master’s degree later, she is now a part-time sociology instructor at the college that transformed her life.

Her career plans: become a full-time professor at MiraCosta College upon earning her Ph.D.

"I never thought I would ever be in a college class, let alone teach one," said Williams. "I know it’s cliché to hear people say that dreams do come true, but they really do, and I’m living happily ever after."

Williams was born and raised in Oceanside and was attending El Camino High School when she became pregnant and dropped out. Not wanting to become another statistic, Williams enrolled in the High School Diploma Program at the MiraCosta College Community Learning Center. "I felt incomplete," she said. "I felt I was missing out on a life better than the one I was experiencing."

She earned her diploma two years later, but her work had just begun. With the help of an Adult High School Diploma Program Graduate Scholarship, she enrolled at MiraCosta College’s Oceanside Campus en route to earning an associate degree in psychology. Her dedication drew a growing legion of supporters and landed her on the President’s List. She also earned multiple scholarships along the way, including a MiraCosta College Foundation Need-Based Scholarship, a MiraCosta College Foundation Scholarship, the Grandison M. Phelps Jr. Memorial Scholarship, an EOPS Recognition Award, the North County African-American Women’s Association Scholarship, and the Louise A. Broderick San Diego County Scholarship.

Upon securing an associate degree in psychology, Williams transferred to Cal State San Marcos, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a Master of Arts in Sociological Practice.

She followed that up with a year-long faculty internship through the San Diego and Imperial Counties Community Colleges Association (SDICCCA), a regional effort to identify, recruit, train and support prospective community college professors, librarians and counselors. That led to an adjunct teaching position at MiraCosta College in the spring and an Introduction to Sociology course during the 2016 Summer Bridge Program. She is set to continue teaching at MiraCosta College this fall while waiting to hear from Ph.D. programs to which she has applied.

"Edwina is a person I can say I’m honored to know," said Diane Danielewicz, a financial aid and scholarship specialist at MiraCosta who knows Williams well. "She continues to be an inspiration to her son and to her students and I am thrilled that she is back at MiraCosta College as a teacher. I have no doubt that soon I will be calling her Dr. Edwina Williams."

Thanks to MiraCosta College, Williams has been able to provide a firm foundation for her son's future.

"MiraCosta College means everything to me," Williams said. "I made some of the best, long-lasting connections among students, faculty, and staff that anyone could hope for, and many of them have helped me tremendously in getting where I am today."

Added Williams: "I don’t feel like my journey is over, but I’m definitely on the right path."

JAMIE LEODONES JAMIE LEODONES

JAMIE LEODONES


A high school teacher once told her she would never be able to do anything with a degree in arts or worse, make a living out of it. Well now, she can prove that high school teacher wrong.

Leodones, a 2010 MiraCosta College graduate in dramatic arts with an emphasis in technical theatre,was one of 15 contestants on season eight of Syfy network’s popular reality competition show, "Face Off". Contestants in the show transform models into mutants, goddesses and human and creature hybrids in a quest to win prize money and fame.

Leondones’ journey into stage make-up began in 2002, when the then-music-major took a MiraCosta stagecraft class and switched her major to technical theatre.

"In order to earn the technical theatre degree, students have to take the stage make-up class, which I didn’t want to… but I had to," said Leodones.

While Leodones had some experience in sculpting, drawing and painting—applying make-up to a face was completely new to her.

"I don’t wear make-up in general so I was kind of scared," Leodones said. "Then I realized make-up was just like painting, but on the face. It just clicked."

In 2003, Leodones began to work as a make-up and hair designer for various MiraCosta College theatre productions, including 1940s Radio Hour, Once Upon a Mattress, The Matchmaker, Charlie’s Aunt, Once on this Island, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night.

Along with schoolwork and responsibilities in the theatre department, Leodones also worked a paid job off-campus.

"I had no idea that I could even qualify for any type of scholarships that were offered," said Leondones, who applied for a number of scholarships and was awarded the MiraCosta College Spotlight Circle Merit Award, MiraCosta College Theatre Merit Award, MiraCosta College Theatre Arts Foundation, MiraCosta College Theatre Arts Merit Award and MiraCosta College Theatre Arts scholarships. "Scholarships ended up being a huge influence in me being able to balance work and school. Earning scholarships helped me take on less hours at work and focus on school, rehearsals, and homework."

Leodones encourages current students to apply for scholarships. She also hopes to someday donate to the MiraCosta College Foundation.

"Money should not have that kind of power to stop someone from accomplishing their goals educationally and professionally," Leodones said. "If I could ever make someone’s life a little easier by offering a scholarship, I would do it in a heartbeat."

After graduating from MiraCosta College, Leodones moved to Los Angeles to attend Cinema Makeup School and gain more experience in the field. In recent years, she expanded her technical skills to special effects make-up and auditioned for "Face Off" in early 2014.

"I waited a really long time to find out if I got in to the show or not," Leodones said. "When I heard the news that I was cast, I was so excited I couldn’t contain myself!"

Though Leodones’ talent took her to prime-time television, she still credits the MiraCosta College Theatre Department and art professor, Yoshimi Hayashi, for helping her discover her passion and hone her craft.

"This industry is hard and you need to be able to have friends and family who you can continue to lean on and ask help from and encourage you—and I found that at MiraCosta College," Leodones said. "I’ve also learned from my MiraCosta family that sometimes it is okay to let go of your art and just keep moving forward no matter what, but you need to learn throughout the way and take those lessons as they come, keep having faith and just keep following your dreams."

ANDREW COBA ANDREW COBA

ANDREW COBA


For some students, failure to do well in the beginning of their college career prevents them from successfully earning a diploma, but not Andrew Coba. If anything, his first semester blunder ignited a fire in him.

Coba, son of a Marine Corps veteran, never planned on attending college after graduating from high school. Instead, he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become Marine, but after some convincing from his dad to give college a try, he agreed to give it a go.

"My first semester was pretty intense," said Coba. "I got beat up by the classes and ended up with a 1.9 GPA."

Instead of giving up, Coba became motivated to do better the next semester. He decided to clean up his study habits and focus on his schoolwork. Coba also began using numerous services offered by The HUB including the Writing Center and the Math Learning Center. He joined the Facilitated Learning Sessions offered by the Tutoring & Academic Support Center (TASC) and took advantage of professors’ office hours.

At the end of his second semester, Coba earned A’s and B’s, which improved his GPA greatly.

"I became really immersed in college my second semester and I think that’s what I was missing before," said Coba. "After a successful spring semester, I decided to keep improving."

In summer 2011, Coba joined the Student Ambassador Program, knowing his first year experiences would provide a good story to enlighten other struggling students.

The program also taught him how to speak and carry himself more professionally—qualities that he believes are a foundation of good leadership.

In 2013, after three years at MiraCosta College, Coba graduated with an associate’s degree in liberal arts with an emphasis in math and science. He then went on to transfer to his dream school—and the only one he applied to—San Diego State University (SDSU).

Majoring in civil engineering, Coba hopes one day to use his knowledge and skills to help his birthplace, Ecuador, rise from its decaying infrastructure.

"I realized how much of a direct impact civil engineering can have on a community," said Coba. "The discipline is meaningful and it is all for the public good."

To add to his engineering knowledge and leadership experience, Coba serves as president of SDSU’s American Society of Civil Engineers chapter.

Coba graduated from SDSU in spring 2016. He plans on working in the field and later earning a professional engineer license, the engineering profession's highest standard of competence.

Eventually, Coba wants to enroll and graduate from an MBA program and work as a leader in the engineering field.

"The classes I took at MiraCosta really prepared me to succeed and have been so fundamental to what I am doing and learning now. I don’t think I could be where I am today if I hadn’t started my journey as a MiraCostan."

FARSHUD SOROURIFAR FARSHUD SOROURIFAR

FARSHUD SOROURIFAR


Farshud Sorourifar, 23, thought his life would always revolve around cars.

After completing many automotive courses, Farshud decided to major in the field after graduating from Vista High School in 2010. He enrolled in Universal Technical Institute (UTI) Automotive Trade School and finished the Diesel & Industrial Technology program in 18 months and found work not long after.

"Once I started working in the automotive field I realized it wasn’t as exciting as I thought it would be," said Farshud. "It just wasn’t as much fun fixing cars, as learning about them."

Farshud decided to go back to school to discover his true passion and found MiraCosta College. In 2013, he began pre-engineering courses to satisfy his goal of someday making a big impact in the world through alternative energy technology.

"After doing more research, I found out the biggest breakthroughs in that field are coming from chemical engineering departments from all the top universities," said Farshud. "So, I’ve focused on chemical engineering. It’s been great."

To immerse himself further into the field, Farshud has also done mathematical research. His paper, "Squaring a Circle: Solutions to an Irrational Problem" has been presented at numerous conferences including the Honors Transfer Council of California (HTCC) Conference at UC Irvine, Pacific Coast Undergraduate Mathematics Conference at Cal Lutheran University and the Bay Area Symposium at Stanford University.

Farshud also balances academics (he has near a 4.0 GPA) with other endeavors including serving as the Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) president, working as a tutor at the Math Learning Center and an Honors Scholar Program navigator.

"I’ve really enjoyed being involved at MiraCosta College," said Farshud. "Right now PTK is working on a big sustainability project that I hope takes off before I transfer."

Farshud hopes to transfer to either UC Berkeley or Stanford to pursue his chemical engineering studies. Ultimately, he hopes to be involved in more research and later earn a doctorate and teach at a university.

"Enrolling at MiraCosta College has been one of the greatest decisions I have ever made. What I’ve learned here has really changed my perspective on life and has allowed me to be a happier person as I work hard to fulfill my dreams."

GEOFFREY KOCH GEOFFREY KOCH

GEOFFREY KOCH


Talk about serendipity.

MiraCosta College student Geoffrey Koch was strolling by the cafeteria one recent afternoon when he came across a girl encouraging people to fill out applications for scholarships at the school. Koch took the advice. Not long later, he learned he had been named the recipient of the Gay Straight Alliance’s first endowed scholarship, a $1,000 award going to a current student who identifies as a member of or as an ally to the LGBTQ community.

"I had never applied for a scholarship at MiraCosta College before, so I was really surprised when I found out," said Koch, a straight-A student.

Koch has long been active in LGBT issues. He has worked with the San Diego HIV Health Services Planning Council, has done volunteer work with gay advocacy groups and is a member of MiraCosta College’s Gay Straight Alliance. He enrolled at MiraCosta College in the fall of 2013 and plans to work in the field of sustainable agriculture. He ultimately hopes to go into consulting and perhaps government work.

Koch first moved to San Diego after graduating from high school in the Los Angeles County, high-desert town of Quartz Hill. He initially enrolled at San Diego Mesa College, but said he didn’t have an educational plan and wasn’t sure of a career. He would later move around the country working at a variety of jobs before returning to San Diego County in 2012 and settling in Oceanside.

Koch landed a job at a residential treatment center and enrolled at MiraCosta College. He said taking classes at the Oceanside Campus was one of the best moves he’s made.

"There are some really great faculty here, along with very supportive people who are looking out for your interest," Koch said. "I can’t say enough about it."

MiraCosta College also is one of the few community colleges in the nation to endow an LGBT scholarship. The effort to finance an endowed scholarship began two years ago when students with the Gay Straight Alliance were discussing a fundraiser. Steven Deineh, an instruction librarian who serves as director of the North County Higher Education Alliance and a faculty co-advisor to the Gay Straight Alliance, suggested the money raised from the fundraiser be used to fund a scholarship in perpetuity. By hitting their goal of $25,000, students would be able to build an endowment through the MiraCosta College Foundation that would fund a $1,000 annual award.

Fundraisers over the past two years included the annual Queer Cupcake Party, a silent auction and sales of rainbow wristbands with the words "Free To Be Me. The most recent fundraiser, held in April, pushed the total to more than $29,000, prompting the Gay Straight Alliance to set its sights on growing the endowment to give additional scholarships.

"MiraCosta College has a long history of promoting diversity on campus, and this is a continuation of that tradition," Deineh said.

Koch, who has been on the President’s List both semesters he’s been at MiraCosta College, said the money will go to good use. "I’m really flattered to be awarded this scholarship, but I think it’s even more awesome that the GSA Alliance has gotten to the point where it can do this."

ARI JOGIEL-SCHLAM ARI JOGIEL-SCHLAM

ARI JOGIEL-SCHLAM


Sometimes it is hard to break out of a strict tradition, but that is exactly what Ari Jogiel-Scham did. Today, he couldn’t be happier.

Born in Mexico City, Ari Jogiel-Schlam grew up in a Mexican-Jewish community where familial tradition flourished, soccer is religion and fashion is always on point.

At the age of 12, he left Mexico City and moved with his family to the United States. They first settled in Illinois, then later moved to San Diego.

Ari graduated from Torrey Pines High School in 2007 and looked for a two-year college to start his undergraduate studies. He toured MiraCosta College and after meeting some of the instructors, he decided the college was a good fit with his educational goals and enrolled right away.

Aside from school, Ari was an avid soccer player and dreamt of becoming a professional soccer player.

"Soccer was my life growing up in Mexico City and when I enrolled at MiraCosta, I found out the college has a men’s soccer team so I tried out and got in," said Ari.

To improve his soccer skills, Ari went back to Mexico in the summer before the fall 2007 semester began. During training, he was injured and tore his ACL, which caused him to miss the next soccer season.

"I did get to play during my second year at MiraCosta, but I just wasn’t at the same level as before the injury," said Ari. "That prevented me from my dream of playing soccer professionally."

In 2009, Ari graduated from MiraCosta College with an associate degree in business and transferred to Chapman University. After earning a bachelor’s degree, he worked as a business professional, but felt he was destined for greater things.

"I earned a degree in business because Mexican-Jewish kids traditionally grow-up to be lawyers, businessmen or doctors," said Ari. "However, I just wasn’t enjoying what I was doing. Life is short, so I decided wanted to do something that would make me happy."

That "something" was to become a fashion designer.

Fashion, like soccer, was always part of Ari’s life, and his love for it began at a young age.

"Growing up, I’ve always loved fashion," said Ari. "I would spend hours shopping for clothes! My favorite thing about going to school was actually putting an outfit together and getting dressed for it."

Unfortunately, due to strict family traditions, a career in fashion was never an option supported by his family.

On his own, Ari began designing hats with a leopard print theme. He manufactured them overseas and sold the hats in the United States.

"It dawned on me that I could actually do this and make it work, so I left my job in corporate," said Ari. Since then, Ari has extended his clothing line aptly named, LEOPARDËT.

"My background is pretty unique and leopards are unique animals, so my clothing line mirrors that," said Ari.

LEOPARDËT includes a line of shirts, pants, shorts, rompers and hats, which are all available for purchase on leopardet.com and at a handful of retail shops in Los Angeles.

"Our products are made with the finest fabrics, produced domestically, and offer a sophisticated look with empowering colors and casual elegance," said Ari. "Ultimately, I hope to bring fashion back into the United States the way it was decades ago."

Ari thanks his college education for helping make his dreams come true and putting everything into perspective.

"Starting a business in America is hard and the fashion industry is even more complicated to navigate. Everyday has been a learning experience, but I am happy."

LEOPARDËT ran a Kickstarter Campaign that began November 2015 and successfully reached its goal of $25,000 to help increase his ability for future designs, create brand awareness and bring fashion back to America.

BRAYAN ASTORGA BRAYAN ASTORGA

BRAYAN ASTORGA


"[All the bullying] made me hate life to the point where I would cut myself," said Brayan, who often felt suicidal.

One day, Brayan had a revelation that he said changed his life for the better.

While sitting in class, Brayan wrote the sentence "life is funny" vertically on a piece of paper.

"The first letters of the sentence spelled out ‘LIF’ and I thought it looked incomplete, so I added the word ‘everyday’ at the end, which resulted with the acronym LIFE," said Brayan. "The acronym ‘LIFE’ literally saved me. It was just a huge epiphany."

From that day forward, Brayan woke up every morning, looked at himself in the mirror and said, "Life is funny everyday."

"I have friends who call me ‘LIFE.’ I even got the word tattooed on my wrist just to remind me life is funny everyday," said Brayan, who today is rarely seen without a smile.

In 2013, Brayan graduated from Oceanside High School. Though he had always dreamt of attending UC Davis, he instead enrolled at MiraCosta College.

"I realized I wanted to stay local," said Brayan. "I also didn’t feel like being in a class with 500 people. I knew MiraCosta could give me the ‘community’ feel, which I like about community colleges."

During his first week at MiraCosta College, Brayan was elected the president of the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Club.

"When I went to the very first GSA meeting, I felt a little out of place because there I was—a 17 year-old freshman wanting to run for president," said Brayan. "The members knew I wanted the position and have leadership experience running the GSA Club at my high school, so I was voted president that very same day."

During his presidency, Brayan helped create the "Queer Corner" inside the Student Center and raised $30,000 for the Gay Straight Alliance Endowed Student Scholarship.

Brayan was GSA president for two years. During this time, he also served as vice president of the Community Learning Center’s Associated Student Government (ASG), chair of the ASG interview committee, and chair of the student center advisory committee.

He was also the founder of Spartans for Animals, a club that provides its members opportunities to volunteer locally to help animals and brings awareness concerning animal-related topics to students, faculty/staff, and the community.

MiraCosta College’s student body elected him its 2015-2016 Associated Student Government president.

"I used to be this loner kid who ate at a corner by himself, but not anymore. I now always try to be involved and help out as many people as I can," said Brayan.

Brayan hopes to one day transfer to a CSU and continue majoring in LGBT studies.

"The experience I’ve had so far at MiraCosta College has been amazing. I am so grateful to be here. I love it here."

MICHAEL LAIRD MICHAEL LAIRD

MICHAEL LAIRD


Michael Laird doesn’t mince words when he talks about MiraCosta College. "Absolutely awesome" is how he puts it.

And why not? MiraCosta offered Laird an opportunity to move to the U.S. from Australia and play collegiate basketball. It’s where he met his future wife, former Spartans soccer star R.G. Ceja. And it’s where he learned how to operate the successful business he owns in Vista, Hardcore Fitness North County.

"I owe a lot to that college," Laird said.

Born and raised in Sydney, Laird found his way to MiraCosta College while looking for an opportunity to pursue a future in basketball. "I looked at every community college conference in California and emailed every coach I could find. The only person who called me back was MiraCosta coach Pat Conahan. The next thing you know, I’m pulling up in a train at the Oceanside Transit Center. Coach Conahan picked me up, and the rest, as they say, is history."

Laird manned the point guard position at MiraCosta for three years before wrapping up his collegiate career at Arizona Christian University in Phoenix. He returned to Sydney to try his hand at a professional career, but gave that up and came back to Oceanside in 2015.

Not a fan of the classroom, Laird was nonetheless intrigued about an Entrepreneurship and Small Business class at the Oceanside Campus taught by Cheryl Wadeson and signed up for the course.

"Best instructor ever," Laird said. "The entire class was basically us putting together a business plan, so I put together a business plan on opening a gym. I interviewed a few people, did a lot of research, and now I own my own gym that’s doing pretty well."

Neither Wadeson nor Conahan are surprised at Laird’s success.

"Michael was one of the most enthusiastic and hardest working players I’ve ever coached, someone who put every ounce of his energy into getting better," said Patrick Conahan, MiraCosta College’s athletic director and head basketball coach. "He’s putting that same sort of energy and enthusiasm into succeeding at his business because that’s pretty much who he is."

Wadeson agreed.

"I expect this is just the beginning of what I'm certain will be a long and rewarding business career as he pursued his passions."

"Michael represents the diversity of MiraCosta," she added. "While some students attend with the intention of transferring to a four-year school, many come to the classroom looking to build their skill set in a particular area. In his case, he had a clear vision of the type of business he wanted to one day own for which he developed a business plan during our entrepreneurship class. Through connections he made during the class and one assignment, he put himself on the pathway to owning his own gym."

Laird said the dedication of people such as Conahan and Wadeson is what makes MiraCosta College so special.

"I just had coffee with Mrs. Wadeson a couple months ago," he said. "That a teacher who I took just one class from two years ago met with me for a couple hours during a recent Sunday to look over my business plan and offer a couple suggestions is pretty awesome. That, to me, says a lot about the passion the faculty and staff at the college have for their students."

SHARON PATRAY SHARON PATRAY

SHARON PATRAY


Amazing. Inspiring. Exceptional.

Those are just a few of the words folks employ to describe Sharon Patray, a former refugee, a U.S. Marine veteran and a MiraCosta College alumna set to graduate May 20 with a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry from Cal State San Marcos.

This fall, there will be yet one more way to describe Patray: Ph.D. student at one of the leading research institutions in the world, Johns Hopkins University.

"Sharon is an amazing person with an inspirational story, and she is a prime example of what community colleges are all about," said MiraCosta College Biology Professor Suzie Bailey, who served at Patray’s faculty mentor in the Bridges to the Future program, a National Institute of Health-sponsored partnership between MiraCosta, Cal State San Marcos and Palomar College designed to prepare students from underrepresented communities for careers in biomedical research.

Patray, a featured speaker at the April 22 March for Science in San Diego, said MiraCosta College was instrumental in her journey. "A huge influence in my life," Patray said about MiraCosta. "Former Biology Professor Keith Cunningham, Julie Haugsness-White, Suzie Bailey, they all were pivotal in my development and in pointing me to the path I’m on today."

That path is leading toward a future in biomedical research. In fact, Patray co-authored a peer-reviewed article in the journal Intrinsically Disordered Proteins while still an undergraduate student at Cal State San Marcos. Other highlights include participating in a 2015 Summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at Johns Hopkins, where her work focused on isolating mycobacteriophages.

Last year, Patray took part in the California State University-Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program, which is aimed at broadening participation in STEM disciplines. And Patray has presented her work at national and regional conferences such as the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) and the CSU Program for Education & Research in Biotechnology (CSUPERB). When she’s not in the lab, Patray can often be found helping veterans transition back to civilian life.

"She has a huge heart," said Bailey.

Patray, 32, was born in Liberia, but migrated to Ghana as a refugee during the First Liberian Civil War, which claimed the lives of more than 600,000 people from 1989 to 1997. At the age of 15, Patray immigrated to the U.S. under a resettlement program and settled with her father in Rochester, N.Y. Although she earned a fully paid scholarship to study engineering at Clarkson University, Patray could not capitalize on the offer because she had not yet become eligible for a green card from what was then known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Instead, she enrolled at nearby Monroe Community College. A year later, she was in the Marines. A friend was enlisting, and a recruiter told Patray the military would pay for her education and help her secure a green card.

The next eight years included deployments as a combat engineer in Korea, Thailand, Iraq and Afghanistan. She left the service in 2011, moved to Oceanside and enrolled at MiraCosta College, where she became active with the Veterans Information Center. Initially on track to become a physical therapist ("I wanted a profession where I could continue helping people"), Patray changed course after an assignment in a kinesiology course required her to interview professionals in the field.

"I realized physical therapy wasn’t for me," she said.

A biology course taught by Keith Cunningham and an anatomy class taught by Julie Haugsness-White helped Patray find her calling. Both encouraged her to apply for the Bridges to the Future, even though Patray doubted whether she was properly prepared for a future in the sciences.

"The support I received at MiraCosta College helped change that," she said.

Bailey said Patray’s transformation in the sciences was impressive. "I’ve never seen a person grow and blossom like that before," Bailey said. "The younger Bridges scholars really looked up to her – and they still do."

Indeed, Patray, who earned two associate degrees from MiraCosta and remains involved with the college, is scheduled to take part in a Spring Research Symposium on May 12 at the Oceanside Campus.

"I had some great teachers, some great mentors at both MiraCosta College and Cal State San Marcos who told me I could be a great biochemist and provided me with the support and resources to succeed," said Patray. "They have been my family since I decided to go the science route."

BROGAN GRIFFIN BROGAN GRIFFIN

BROGAN GRIFFIN


Brogan Griffin was always a great athlete.

But excelling in the classroom was not always her strength, which hindered her chance of earning an athletic scholarship to a top university straight out of high school.

"I was really good in basketball and thought I would get a scholarship based on my athletic skills alone, but I hurt my ankle really bad during my junior year. Then, I tore my ACL and needed to have surgery which took me out of the game my whole senior year," said Griffin. "Since I didn’t really focus in school and had really bad grades, I couldn’t get accepted to any four-year universities."

After graduating from San Clemente High School with no clear path in life, Griffin sought ways to get back in the game and found MiraCosta College, where her former basketball coach, Roger Moses, coaches the women’s basketball team.

"I’ve known Brogan since eighth grade. She was a very good high school player but she had an unfortunate accident, which took her out of the rest of her high school basketball career," said Moses.

Knowing Griffin’s passion and skills for the game, Moses recruited her to the basketball team.

That was in fall 2013. Today, Griffin has a 4.0 GPA and is majoring in business administration. She hopes to transfer to USC and play for its women’s basketball team.

"My experience at MiraCosta College has been great and I’ve really progressed here," said Griffin. "It was a good decision that I came to MiraCosta College. My grades have improved tremendously—I love it here."

Due to her tremendous academic achievement, Moses nominated her for the Academic All-State Award, which honors student-athletes who are the best students in their respective sports. The CCCWBCA (California Community College Women's Basketball Coaches Association)
released the list of recipients in October 2014 and Griffin is the only San Diego community college student who received the prestigious award.

"I was so excited when Coach Moses told me I received an academic all-state award," Griffin said. "When I saw the recipient list, I was pretty stoked. It’s great to see the kinds of things one can earn with good grades—it is very motivating."

Griffin is invited to attend an event celebrating all Academic All-State nominees and recipients in spring 2015.

BRYAN TAGGART BRYAN TAGGART

BRYAN TAGGART


North San Diego County Native Bryan Taggart took a less traditional route in his pursuit of education. After completing high school, like many of his peers, Bryan went away to college. In the spring semester of 2009, he graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz with a bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology and moved back to San Diego, where he found the job opportunities in marine biology limited and difficult to obtain. After searching for some time, Bryan learned there were plenty of job opportunities in the biotechnology industry, and decided to enroll in MiraCosta College’s biotechnology program.

Initially Bryan only intended to take one or two classes to see if he enjoyed the subject and was pleasantly surprised to find he liked biotechnology. "When I started the program, I didn’t have the technical skills for biotech. In marine biology we typically work with whole organisms, so it was interesting learning how to work with smaller organisms, cells, and instruments," says Bryan.

One thing that stood out the most to Bryan during his time at MiraCosta College was the quality of education. "All of the professors and classes were great. I was really impressed with the quality of instruction. They have all worked in the industry and were incredibly knowledgeable about the subject. The whole program was very team-oriented; it was an excellent environment for learning," says Bryan.

After one year at MiraCosta College, Bryan had taken every biotechnology class offered during the time period he was enrolled. Currently he holds all of the certificates offered by the Biotechnology Program – a Certificate of Proficiency in Laboratory Skills, Certificate of Achievement in Bioprocess Technology, and Certificate of Achievement in Research and Development from MiraCosta College.

In April of 2010, Bryan secured a job working as a laboratory technician/operations intern at Stemgent, a biotechnology company located in San Diego, California. After one year and a lot of hard work, Bryan was promoted to research associate. "In my current position I work with stem cell cultures, do quality control, and perform research. MiraCosta College prepared me very well for my job. Even before I started working at Stemgent I knew how to operate all of the equipment that I work with in the laboratory everyday."

In the future Bryan hopes to pursue a master’s degree in biotechnology at California State University, San Marcos. When he decides to do so, he will have a leg up. "Many of the courses satisfy requirements for the master’s program at Cal State San Marcos."

Biotechnology is an ever changing, rapidly growing industry. Approximately one-third of the biotechnology companies within the United States are located in California. In San Diego County alone there are more than 500 companies devoted to biotechnology, bioscience and biomedicine. "It is really interesting to be working in a cutting edge field," says Bryan. "I’ve gained a lot of confidence in myself and my abilities, and made some great connections.

MARIAM EICK MARIAM EICK

MARIAM EICK


So much for her plans to become a gourmet chef. Thanks to MiraCosta College’s renown biotechnology program that led to a coveted, year-long research internship at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, Mariam Eick – who as a child dreamed of becoming a chef and perhaps owning her own restaurant – is transferring this fall to UC San Diego for a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering, setting herself on a path toward a Ph.D. that would put her on the front line of stem cell research.

"Going to MiraCosta was the best decision I could have made," said Eick, 22, a former Iraqi refugee who lives with her parents in Encinitas. "I heard so many great things about MiraCosta and I didn’t want to put a financial strain on my parents, who were already helping to put my sister through college. It just made sense. I matured as a student and as a person and it really set me up well for what I want to do in the future."

Eick concedes she was not the most dedicated student when she enrolled at MiraCosta College after earning her high school diploma from the San Dieguito Academy in Encinitas. "School was not my biggest priority at the time," she said.

That changed in a hurry. Her interest in the sciences piqued in a high school biotechnology course her senior year, Eick immersed herself in genomics and bioengineering once she began taking classes at MiraCosta College’s Oceanside and San Elijo campuses. She soon became active in the Honors Club and the campus Chemistry Club, earned the Seth Sprague Educational and Charitable Foundation Scholarship and was named to the President’s List for her stellar academic achievements.

Then she learned about the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) Stem Cell Internship Program, a collaboration between MiraCosta and Miramar colleges and Cal State San Marcos. Funded by the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act (Proposition 71), CIRM was created in 2005 and has distributed about half of the $3 billion in state funds for stem cell research. Because her work at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine is full time and the research is so intense, Eick took a year off school to fulfill her obligations. She wraps up the internship in August and will enroll at UC San Diego a few weeks later. Eick said she hopes to work in the region’s growing life sciences field, which comprises more than 80 independent and university-affiliated research institutes.

"The biotechnology program at MiraCosta College works closely with industry to prepare the next generation of research scientists and to create opportunities for our students to advance their education and careers," said Mike Fino, Dean of Math and Sciences who formerly worked as a researcher and process engineer at a Torrey Pines-based bioengineering firm on the cutting edge of regenerative medicine. "Mariam represents the best of what students can achieve."

Eick, one of just two MiraCosta College students who secured an internship this year and one of just 10 college students from the county who were admitted to the program, worked under the tutelage of postdoctoral researcher Chao-Shun Yang in the Lawrence Goldstein Lab. Their focus? Utilizing clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), which forms the basis of genome editing, to design cell variants for a gene that may be related to Alzheimer’s disease.

"Stem cell research is so groundbreaking, so life changing, and I’m excited to become a part of it," said Eick.

Eick holds especially high praise for her parents, who fled Iraq when she was an infant after her father, a civil engineer, was kidnapped by forces loyal to former dictator Saddam Hussein and held for ransom. Both parents left what once was a comfortable life and moved from country to country before settling in San Diego County when Eick was a toddler. Eick’s father worked as a liquor store clerk and her mother as a manager of a fast-food restaurant to make ends meet.

"I appreciate my parents so much for what they’ve done to give me and my sister an opportunity to be who we are," Eick said. "I think almost every day about how lucky I am to be here."

CHUCK LOWERY CHUCK LOWERY

CHUCK LOWERY


MiraCosta College is where leadership begins. Just ask MiraCosta College graduate Chuck Lowery, who now serves as the Deputy Mayor of Oceanside.

"MiraCosta College is a wonderful asset to the community," Lowery said. "A lot of people got their start there."

Lowery was born and raised in Oceanside and attended Ditmar Elementary School, St. Mary Star of the Sea and Oceanside High School before enrolling at MiraCosta College in 1969.

"It was a comfortable transition coming from a high school setting to go to a college with such a supportive environment," he said. "It was reassuring for me, who was somewhat of an introvert at the time."

After earning an associate degree in 1971, Lowery transferred to San Diego State University and later founded Pacific Bakery, a wholesale business that would later count Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s among its clients.

Lowery has been elected to the Oceanside City Council twice and is bullish on the city’s future. "Over the past 20 years or so, Oceanside has gone through a complete metamorphosis," he said. "We have gone from being a rundown, abandoned, Southern California coastal town to an up-and-coming destination with incredible promise and a lot to offer."

MiraCosta College also has grown since Lowery graduated. At the time, just 2,000 students were enrolled at the college, and the area served by the district was only about half the size it is now. Today, some 15,000 students attend for-credit courses in some 70 academic subjects at the Oceanside and San Elijo campuses.

The Deputy Mayor said his heart will always be with MiraCosta College.

"The folks at MiraCosta have done an incredible job with their outreach into the community," Lowery said. "The college is not just sitting there on the hill waiting for high school students to enroll. They’re reaching out with ample opportunity for a wide range of people, from someone who may have recently lost their job and is looking for something else, to somebody who may have just moved here and wants to take up a new interest. It’s just a great campus with great people and great faculty members looking to serve their students."

ANTOINE STEVENS-PHILLIPS ANTOINE STEVENS-PHILLIPS

ANTOINE STEVENS-PHILLIPS


Antoine Stevens-Phillips was settling into a career as a political consultant when he enrolled at MiraCosta College on the advice of an uncle. No surprise, then, that he quickly rose to become vice president of legislative affairs for the Associated Student Government.

"Being at MiraCosta College has been an amazing experience and will play an instrumental role in helping me reach my goals," said the Detroit native, who is the first in his family to go to college and eventually plans on enrolling in law school. "There are so many resources here and so many people willing to help."

Stevens-Phillips was taking classes at Wayne State University in Detroit upon graduating from high school, but had to drop out as a freshman due to a lack of financial aid. The fact that he wasn’t serious about his education at the time didn’t help.

"Throughout high school, I did what I had to do to pass," Stevens-Phillips said.

But Stevens-Phillips has a gregarious personality, and friends helped him land a job for a Detroit consulting firm where clients included the longtime congressman, Rep. John Conyers. Work would later take him to Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., before he moved to California to lobby local lawmakers and state legislators.

While living in Los Angeles two years ago, his uncle suggested Stevens-Phillips go back to school.

"He told me about MiraCosta College, which was where he went to college," Stevens-Phillips said. "He was living in Oceanside at the time and I was staying in L.A., so I came down and had a look and eventually enrolled. I’m glad I did. It feels like family here."

To say that Stevens-Phillips has been a success at MiraCosta College would be an understatement. Besides his work with ASG, he has a 3.9 grade-point average, is deeply involved in the Honors Scholar Program, belongs to the Phi Theta Kappa Society and serves as a consultant in the Writing Center at the Oceanside Campus.

"Antoine embodies the very best of MiraCosta College students," said Chancellor, Los Angeles Community College District Dr. Francisco Rodriguez. "He has earned the respect of faculty, staff and other students with his focus on success, determination, and eagerness to learn and try new things. His bright smile and persistent optimism is infectious."

Stevens-Phillips speaks just as highly about Dr. Rodriguez. "He has really inspired me. He spoke to me about his family and his experiences and how his grandfather was a farmer who told him that you only get out of life what you put into it. That has really stuck with me."

Being involved in student government has helped show Stevens-Phillips how special MiraCosta College is.

"I interact with my peers at colleges all across the state and many of them tell me they feel like they’re just a number where they are. You don’t feel that way at MiraCosta. The professors, the faculty, the staff, the counselors they are all here to help guarantee your success."

Stevens-Phillips was accepted to all of the universities he applied to, including UC San Diego, UCLA, and UC Berkeley.

DAISY JIMENEZ DAISY JIMENEZ

DAISY JIMENEZ


Daisy Jimenez is heading to her dream school. And MiraCosta College helped her get there.

Daisy has had her sights set on Boston University since she first laid eyes on the school while on an eighth-grade field trip to New England, Washington, D.C. and Gettysburg. "We drove by Boston University and I fell in love with it," Daisy recalled. "I said, `that’s where I want to go.’"

Her parents had other ideas. "They thought it would be cheaper and a smoother transition if I went to MiraCosta College first instead of straight to a four-year school," Daisy said.

She wasn’t happy.

"At first, I was kind of mad I had to go to a two-year college," said Daisy. "I’d see my friends posting on social media about the great experiences they were having at a four-year college or university, and I was frustrated. But then I realized I was just holding myself back. One of my English professors suggested I work in the Writing Center, so I looked into it and it was great. Then I started going to workshops and I began to enjoy the MiraCosta experience."

Born and raised in Vista, Daisy went to Guajome Park Academy before enrolling at MiraCosta College three years ago. She thrived academically, earned a spot on the President’s List and graduated with a 3.7 grade point average. She graduated in May with an associate degree in communications, which she will continue to study at Boston University.

Her career plans include working in the advertising and public relations arm of Disney. She got a good start when she spent the spring and summer of 2015 on a six-month internship through the Disney College Program, working at the Orlando, Fla., resort during the day while taking an array of business courses and listening to speakers at night.

"Daisy is truly a model student and an example of the very best at MiraCosta," said communications instructor Anthony Ongyod. "She is thoughtful, curious, and makes everyone around her better. What sets her apart is she is relentlessly consistent. Everyone can be great sometimes. Daisy is one of those students that does excellent work all the time."

It’s that kind of support that makes Daisy realize now that her parents made the right choice in having her attend MiraCosta College before heading to Boston.

"Everyone at MiraCosta wants you to succeed," she said. "The resources are there; you just have to take advantage of them."

OMER AZIZI OMER AZIZI

OMER AZIZI


Trying to evade the Taliban during a brutal civil war until seeking asylum in Pakistan where his family dealt with daily humiliations because of their Afghan heritage, Omer Azizi finally made it to the United States after two decades of searching for safety.

Today, he is a straight-A student at MiraCosta College, has been named to the Phi Theta Kappa All-California Academic Team, and a recipient of the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship that funds the full cost of his education as he pursues his bachelor’s degree – all while volunteering selflessly in aiding others in need.

MiraCosta College, Omer said, has helped him make it happen.

"The people who work here are dedicated to making sure their students succeed," he said. "I have no doubt that I will earn a master’s degree from an Ivy League college, but I can assure you that nothing will ever replace MiraCosta College in my heart. This place is my home."

He has earned respect from all corners along the way.

"Omer has come from a life of extreme hardship," said Afifa Zaman, a MiraCosta College counselor. "He has been a refugee since he was a small child. He was the sole provider for his family as a teenager. For him to be where he is at today is just so amazing and impressive."

"Impressive" is a word many people use after meeting him. A recent visitor to the Legoland Hotel where Omer works recently posted this comment on TripAdvisor: "The staff is great… especially one gentleman by the name of Omer Azizi. Omer made us feel so welcome and was incredibly accommodating. He made our stay one to remember!"

Omer’s odyssey began in Kabul. His earliest memories are filled with vivid images of rocket attacks destroying entire neighborhoods as rival forces fought to fill a power vacuum created after Soviet forces withdrew from the war-torn country.

"The situation was beyond explanation," Omer said. "I mean, I’ve seen it all."

That includes artillery fire that leveled his family’s home, and later his father – rushing a desperately ill Omer to the hospital – being detained at gunpoint by Taliban militias.

"It was curfew time," said Omer, now 24. "The Taliban told my father he had to either go home or to the mosque. He couldn’t take me to the hospital. It was forbidden."

"These were barbaric people," Omer continued. "They couldn’t read or write."

A few years after the Taliban consolidated its power and imposed a strict form of Sharia, the family fled for safety in Pakistan. They settled in Rawalpindi, a city of more than 3 million south of the capital of Islamabad.

Life continued to be a struggle. When Omer was 15, his father could no longer work; the war had left him suffering from severe illness. Omer’s local accent and linguistic abilities, however, allowed him to blend in and adapt. While still going to school – in a country where the United Nations says some 80 percent of school-age Afghan children are not receiving an education, Omer became the family’s breadwinner, somehow finding a job as a travel agent to support three siblings and his parents.

Just as important, Omer’s mastery of Farsi, Pashto, Urdu and Hindi enabled him to navigate through a mashup of different cultures, resulting in an abundance of volunteer work. "The people of my community would seek my help," he said. "Anything from translating doctor visits to helping free innocent refugees from the police. I was fluent in the local languages, knew the law, and would use my professional networks to help them."

Education always remained a priority.

"It was a really proud moment for a refugee like me to graduate from high school, but going to university was out of the question."

That would only come when the family moved to Oceanside after spending seven years in Pakistan. Omer was 21 at the time.

"I had heard great things about this beautiful college in Oceanside, so the first thing I did was head up to MiraCosta and enroll. But I was considered an international student, and I couldn’t afford the tuition, and I barely spoke English. So, I went to the Community Learning Center and took all the free math and English classes that I could. A year later, I went back to the Oceanside Campus and was able to enroll as a California resident."

He has been excelling since, earning a number of awards, including the Rosemary and Lou Oberndorf Lifeline to Completion Scholarship from the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. He has been just as active in the community, picking up recently arrived refugees from the airport, finding them housing and jobs, driving their children to school, parents to doctor visits, and taking them shopping for food.

In April, he will be honored with a President’s Volunteer Service Award for contributing more than 500 hours of volunteer work in 2016.

"Omer is involved on campus, he is involved in the community and he is involved with his family," said Zaman. "He’s just a wonderful person."

Omer’s next stop: USC for a bachelor’s degree in business administration and sociology.

Said Omer:

"If you ask me what I want to be, I want to be the Secretary General of the United Nations. I want to head the UN High Commission on Refugees. I want to run the International Rescue Committee. But whatever I do, my focus will always be on education. My mission in life is to empower children to escape war and poverty through education. Education is the key. Technology is the answer."

PARIPON THITATHAN JR. PARIPON THITATHAN JR.

PARIPON THITATHAN JR.


You would never know from Paripon "Pari" Thitathan Jr.’s smiling face that he has had a tough life. Growing up, Pari was a product of a split family. At the age of five, Pari relocated to Thailand with his father and brother for eight years and finally returned to the United States at the age of 13.

In 2003, Pari entered Oceanside High School and then transferred to Fallbrook High during his sophomore year. At the time, he said he did not take school seriously and became drastically behind in credits. "I had zero credits—close to nothing," Pari said. He was forced to attend continuation high school and take part in an accelerated program. He simultaneously attended MiraCosta College where he took a couple of classes that helped him catch-up with his high school credits. By 2006, at the age of 16, Pari graduated high school and earned "The Best Come Back" award.

Pari then enrolled as a full-time college student at MiraCosta College, but his accelerated success in high school did not pair well with college-level academics, so he decided to drop out of college.

Pari then shifted his focus from school to working full-time in multiple industries including food, retail and automotive. For four years, Pari delved in the low-paying and unstable environment of blue-collar jobs. Due to the working conditions, Pari realized the importance of a college degree and went back to school to study mechanical engineering, but again performed poorly and postponed his education.

In 2008, Pari’s family started a chain of restaurants, Papaya Bay Banning. "I dropped everything to work full-time for my mom’s business," Pari said. A few years later, due to the unstable economy, two of the three restaurants went bankrupt and once again, Pari was at a loss.

"I realized how stupid I was… I realized how much I don't know about life and how things operate," Pari said. Surprisingly, the restaurant industry did spark interest in an unexpected field. "The restaurant industry unveiled my curiosity for science... and I decided to challenge myself to return to college, " Pari said.

In fall of 2011, With the bankruptcy and lack of education as his motivation, Pari worked hard to pull himself together and put his full focus on succeeding in college. "I thought I was going to perform terribly, but I proved myself wrong," Pari said.

Pari majored and earned a place on the President’s List twice, became a member of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society, and was awarded the Genentech-Osher scholarship, which provides a $500 scholarship every semester.

"I was literally dragged by my wife and Diane Danielewicz of the Scholarship Office to apply for the scholarship," Pari shares. "I almost fell off my bed when I saw the email that I was chosen!"

To help him and his wife with their finances, Pari runs a small business on wheels, the Thai Burger Company, which can be found at various farmer’s markets in North County San Diego. "We have the original Thai burgers!" Pari declares. Pari invested over one thousand dollars in his business and it has paid off. "We became full-blown vendors in the summer of 2012," Pari said. "It’s not easy to stand out in the farmer’s market business, but we have fought a really good fight and are making it."

However, it is the scholarship from MCC that he says makes the impossible possible.

"My wife of two years, Bongkod Wongpan, and I work hard to make ends meet. The scholarship definitely helped us with our needs, which is more than what I could ask for," Pari said.

Pari plans on transferring to UC San Diego or UC Davis to earn a degree in biological engineering. He dreams of someday running his own research facility.

"Despite how dim that ray of light is at the end of this journey, miracles do exist for those who sincerely work hard, have strong faith and hope, and possess a true sense of purpose."

Check out Thai Burger Company at the Oceanside Sunset Market every Thursday night and other locations as scheduled..

JACKIE RILEY JACKIE RILEY

JACKIE RILEY


Jackie Riley loves MiraCosta College so much, the Del Mar resident – who had already earned an associate of arts degree – decided to return to the school even after transferring to UC San Diego and securing a bachelor of science degree in clinical psychology.

And why not? When Riley decided to take a few pre-requisite science classes before applying to medical school next fall, MiraCosta College was the obvious choice.

"I know the people here, it’s a great school, I’m comfortable with the college and it’s economical," she said.

Riley first began taking classes at the San Elijo Campus after graduating from Torrey Pines High School in 2012. "I really didn’t know what I wanted to major in or what I really wanted to do, so it didn’t really make sense spending all that money going to straight to a four-year college," Riley said.

It was during a second-year psychology course at the Oceanside Campus that she found her calling and a future career as a clinical psychiatrist. Meanwhile, wanting to become more involved at MiraCosta, she was hired as a student ambassador pitching the benefits of the college to students at Torrey Pines High School.

"There are a lot of students there who really don’t know what their options are or who really don’t have their minds made up, and I was there to help them find their path," Riley said. "It was great representing MiraCosta College, but if they wanted to do something else, I was there to help them get there."

It was that kind of attitude that impressed her co-workers and others in the Student Ambassador Program.

"Jackie is an amazing role model and a wonderful person," said Lisa Montes, a student services specialist in the Office of School Relations & Diversity Outreach who supervised Riley and remains close to her former protégé. "Her excellence reflects both the college and the community."

Riley graduated from MiraCosta in 2014 and graduated from UC San Diego last spring. Now she’s back at MiraCosta College for her post-bachelor’s degree work taking courses in organic chemistry, general chemistry and physics before applying to medical school.

"It’s funny because sometimes I think of myself more as a graduate of MiraCosta than as a graduate of UCSD," she said. "MiraCosta is such a welcoming community."

Her goal is to work with children as a clinical psychologist.

"I have no doubt she’ll succeed," Montes said.

RICHARD HUIZAR RICHARD HUIZAR

RICHARD HUIZAR


Richard Huizar wasn't planning to attend MiraCosta College. But that changed when the San Marcos resident found he couldn't afford his first choice, San Diego State University.

As it turns out, enrolling at MiraCosta College was one of the best moves Huizar has made in his young life. He graduated in May 2014 as an Honors Scholar with a 3.9 GPA, served as a student ambassador for the college, and president of the Soccer Club. The applied mathematics major, who held down three campus jobs, was on the President's List, scored a perfect 800 on the SAT subject tests in math and physics, and now is at MIT. And Huizar's accomplishments did not go unnoticed--he was also a finalist for the 2014 Latino Champions Awards hosted by U-T San Diego.

"MiraCosta College was my educational destiny," Huizar said. "It is an amazing place with a positive environment and excellent faculty and staff. It gave me an opportunity to transfer to a great four-year program and showed that I can do anything I wanted."

To help with his educational goals, Huizar had the opportunity to earn a couple of scholarships for which he is very thankful. Huizar received the Osher Scholarship and the Hank & Kathleen Jolly Memorial Endowed Scholarship from MiraCosta College, which helped him with other school expenses and more importantly, to save up for MIT.

"Without scholarships, I would not have been able to put the emphasis on my education that I have thus far," Huizar said. "Each scholarships gave me that little nudge to keep pushing forward. I know without scholarships I would not have been able to have done as much as I did at MiraCosta."

"MiraCosta has given me the possibility to obtain any goal I would like and has given me every resource to grow academically and personally."

Huizar was an honor student at Mission Hills High School in San Marcos and was set to attend San Diego State. When financing fell through, he toured MiraCosta College with Lisa Montes, the college's student services specialist in the Office of School Relations & Diversity Outreach.

"He is the most humble young man you will ever meet," Montes said. "He also is solid academically and a great role model."

Huizar was plenty busy at MiraCosta. One of his jobs was as a specialized tutor in EOPS/CalWORKs helping underprivileged and underrepresented students in lower-level mathematics courses.

"Some of these people have failed these classes before and are about to give up, so it's great to see them succeed," Huizar said.

As a student ambassador, Huizar represented the college at area high schools and community groups, and worked as a tutor for students enrolled upper-level differential equations mathematics courses.

"He is diligent in everything he does and he is always willing to help others," Montes said.

Huizar was the first in his family to graduate from college. "I want to show my younger family that higher education and their dreams are possible; a matter of course, not something out of reach for us."

"I'm going to miss MiraCosta," Huizar said. It was my home away from home. I was there all the time."

TAYLOR BARRY TAYLOR BARRY

TAYLOR BARRY


Taylor Barry was set to attend Sonoma State University in the fall of 2010 after graduating from Oceanside’s El Camino High School – until she had a sudden change of heart. She ended up going to MiraCosta College instead.

Good thing. An academic standout, Taylor – who recently married and changed her surname to Moss – found her passion at MiraCosta, where she worked as a student ambassador before transferring to UC San Diego and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology. Now she’s manufacturing pharmaceuticals at Genentech, a leading Bay Area-based biotechnology company with offices in Oceanside.

"When you’re in high school, community college can have something of a stigma among certain students," said Taylor. "But going to a community college and going to MiraCosta College was the best decision I made. When I transferred to UC San Diego, the transition was really easy, and because of the cost savings involved with going to a community college I was able to graduate with a bachelor’s degree debt free."

Born and raised in Oceanside, Taylor originally had her sights set on Sonoma State, where she was going to study nursing. "Then, about two weeks before I was going to move up north, I changed my mind. It just didn’t feel right. So, I went to MiraCosta, and the college made it really easy to enroll. The faculty and staff made me feel at home, helped me set up an education plan, and I was ready to go."

It soon became clear that MiraCosta College was a wise choice.

"The faculty is just amazing," said Taylor. "They’re connected to the students. The class sizes are small, and the students are motivated. It was a great experience for me."

Taylor used her enthusiasm to fuel her passion as an effective student ambassador.

"Taylor Barry was selected to represent MiraCosta College in our schools and the community because she was a role model to others around her, solid academically, and displayed leadership skills," said Lisa Montes, MiraCosta College’s School Relations/Diversity Outreach Specialist. "She is articulate, resourceful, personable and continues to make MiraCosta College proud. I am excited to know she has since graduated from UCSD and is working for a local biotechnology company."

In fact, it was while she was attending MiraCosta that Taylor was inspired by a biology instructor and opted to change her major and career goals. She graduated with an associate of arts degree with an emphasis in math and science before enrolling at UC San Diego. She found the job at Genentech – where she works as a contractor – shortly after securing her bachelor’s degree in 2015.

"I love what I’m doing," she said. "It’s a very team-oriented company. I’m working with some very intelligent people and learning a lot. I have a lot to be thankful for."

THOMAS SUDNICK THOMAS SUDNICK

THOMAS SUDNICK


Meet Officer Thomas Sudnick, the newest member of the West Springfield, Mass., Police Department – thanks in no small part to MiraCosta College.

"This is an excellent job and like a dream come true," said Sudnick. "And I really wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for MiraCosta."

Sudnick, who grew up about 15 miles north of West Springfield in Holyoke, found his way to MiraCosta after enlisting in the Navy following his high school graduation, serving four years as an engineer assigned to the guided missile destroyer Arleigh Burke and landing a job as a dispatcher with the Springfield College Police Department in his home state of Massachusetts. To his surprise, his wife, a Navy nurse, registered him up for classes at MiraCosta College when she was assigned to the Camp Pendleton Naval Hospital and the couple moved to Oceanside in 2009.

"I wanted nothing to do with college," Sudnick said. "I just wanted to go straight into the workforce. But my wife signed me up, and it turned out to be the best thing to happen to me."

Sudnick quickly found a home at MiraCosta and became a regular presence at the Veterans Information Center on the Oceanside Campus (his graduation picture hangs in the office), assisting in numerous outreach events. It was while taking an introduction to criminal justice course with Professor Patrick Connolly that he found his future: law enforcement.

"I have worked as a prosecutor, I’ve worked with the FBI, I’ve worked with intelligence agencies and I’ve worked with local law enforcement, and it was quite clear after the first time talking to Tom that his background, experience and temperament would make him not just a good police officer, but an excellent one," said Connolly, who serves as MiraCosta College’s Administration of Justice Department chair. "I know that he will represent both MiraCosta College and the Administration of Justice Department well, and we are very proud of his accomplishments."

Sudnick excelled academically at MiraCosta and secured two Osher scholarships, as well as the Kendra Keating Scholarship. He earned two associate degrees – one in arts and humanities, the other in administration of justice – and transferred to Cal State San Marcos in 2012, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminology and justice studies.

Shortly after returning with his family to Massachusetts in 2013, Sudnick began working part time as a police officer at Springfield College. On Sept. 27, he was sworn in as an officer with the West Springfield Police Department, which includes a team of 80 sworn officers, 11 civilian employees and a reserve force of 90 members. Although a small town of just 30,000 people, West Springfield is home to the annual Eastern States Exposition, which traditionally brings more than 1 million visitors to the area during its 17-day run. Also known as "The Big E," the Eastern States Exposition is billed as New England’s Great State Fair and remains the largest agricultural event on the eastern seaboard and among the largest in the nation.

Sudnick said he remains indebted to MiraCosta College.

"I had nothing but excellent experiences at MiraCosta," he said. "The professors there take you under their wing and look out for you. I love that school. Had I not gone there, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today."

Sudnick epitomizes MiraCosta College’s commitment to active duty military and veterans. With 1,800 active-duty military, military dependents and military veterans enrolled at its campuses, MiraCosta has been expanding its efforts to serve those who have served us. With the help of a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration, for example, the college has created Southern California’s only Veterans Business Outreach Center to support service members from San Diego to Santa Barbara who are leaving the military and embarking on a venture of self-employment or entrepreneurship. And Measure MM, a $455 million bond proposal that voters approved in November, will allow MiraCosta College to further improve job training, counseling and support services for veterans.

"As a veteran, I am extremely pleased at how well MiraCosta has welcomed vets and their family," Sudnick said. "I am especially impressed with the Administration of Justice Program and how it prepared me for transfer to a four-year institution and for my law-enforcement career. It’s a privilege to now work in a community where my children are growing up."

AISHA MIJARES AISHA MIJARES

AISHA MIJARES


Born in Virginia and raised in Italy, it didn’t take Aisha Kelsey Mijares long to feel at home at MiraCosta College when she began her higher educational journey. She quickly landed a job as a Lab Tech Assistant, and just as quickly became active with the Italian Club, the Japanese Club, and the Film Club, among others.

"It’s a wonderful school with a beautiful campus and there’s always someone there to help you, whether it’s the counseling center, the math center, or the computer lab," Aisha said. "They give you everything you need to move forward."

This fall, Aisha will be moving forward to Cal State San Marcos, where she is transferring after earning an associate degree from MiraCosta College. Her goal: become an animation artist for the Walt Disney Co.

Aisha, whose dad served in the Navy special operations, spent most of her childhood in Europe. Like many MiraCosta College students, she has worked at several jobs since she enrolled, including serving as an instructional aide in the computer lab at the Oceanside Campus. Other gigs include waitressing, assisting at a Camp Pendleton Youth and Teen Center, and serving as a brand ambassador who promotes various companies at concerts, trade shows, and video game competitions and conventions.

Her artistic talents have caught the eye of many, and she was chosen to complete much of the design work for a MiraCosta College library exhibition celebrating the Lunar New Year in 2016 and graphic design for the Japanese Internment exhibition in 2017.

She is among MiraCosta College’s biggest fans. And for good reason.

"The teachers here are amazing," said Aisha, 27. "Anytime I needed help, they were there for me. Everybody has been accessible. Coming here was a really good choice. I was able to make friends really fast, and everybody has been really friendly."

Friendly is how Aisha’s friends describe her.

"Aisha is so accepting of other people," said fellow MiraCosta College Instructional Aide Adele Urias. "She’s a very positive person who brightens up the room as soon as she walks in. She’s been so helpful to so many people, and really represents what MiraCosta College is all about."

DEANGELO BROWN DEANGELO BROWN

DEANGELO BROWN


DeAngelo Brown is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and served one year in Iraq during his thirteen years of service. The father of three left the Corps in 2011 and decided to enroll at MiraCosta College en route to earning a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.

"MiraCosta has a reputation as being the Harvard of community colleges," he said. "It’s a good school."

DeAngelo achieved academic excellence at MiraCosta College and transferred to the Jacob’s School of Engineering at UC San Diego. He plans to conduct research in satellite communications equipment or teach on the university level.

DeAngelo’s interest in electronics was fostered as a child while watching his father repair broken electronic devices. MiraCosta College continued his passion for engineering and electronics through the outstanding instruction of the college’s faculty.

DeAngelo was selected from several thousand applicants nationwide for the 2013 Coca-Cola Scholarship, and was named to the Phi Theta Kappa All-California Academic Team. He then advanced as a bronze scholar to the Phi Theta Kappa All-USA Academic Team. DeAngelo’s success is not limited to the classroom. As a student, he served as a peer adviser for the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services program and as an officer in the Parents on Campus Club. He is also a graduate of MiraCosta College’s Emerging Leaders Institute.

At MiraCosta College, DeAngelo found a family and home, "I found the community of veterans and non-veterans to be supportive of my goals and dreams. It was amazing!"

REDEN MAGTIRA REDEN MAGTIRA

REDEN MAGTIRA


Lights, camera, action.

As Drama Club president his senior year and an avid performer at El Camino High School’s Truax Theater in Oceanside, Reden Magtira found that balancing Advanced Placement (AP) classes and a rigorous rehearsal schedule for the plays and musicals were a perfect fit for this 2013 graduate. With academic honors and eight high school productions under his belt, Reden enrolled at MiraCosta College in the fall of 2013 to earn his general education credits and transfer to UC San Diego and major in theatre.

Though Reden had the grades and test scores to start his college journey at a university, he chose to attend MiraCosta College instead.

"Attending a four-year university right out of high school did not seem that logical. I don’t get the appeal of ‘dorm life’ or the importance of belonging to a fraternity or even the quintessential objective of ‘finding yourself’ hundreds of miles away from home," Reden said.

Thankfully, Reden "found" himself during his high school years, and believes by attending a community college he is getting the same quality education that a freshman attending a university is, but for a fraction of the price.

As a first-year student at MiraCosta College, Reden has been blown away by the quality of his experience at the Oceanside Campus. "The teachers actually want to be here. They enjoy teaching the students, which in return give the students a more effective and easy experience in learning. I’ve noticed the students are so eager to understand concepts and ask questions, and they’re quite polite as well," Reden said.

Balancing two jobs as a barista and a student worker at the MiraCosta College Public Information Office would not have been possible without the addition of the Friday Core classes. "The Friday and Saturday sessions have been an absolute asset to my schedule because I get to spread out my classes throughout the week. If I were to stack all my classes on two days, I’d be burned out by the end of the day and wouldn’t have the energy nor the enthusiasm to even open my backpack," Reden said.

Other than the quality of education he has received so far, there seems to be one other thing he enjoys at the college: the cafeteria.

"The food is affordable, tasty and keeps me and my brain fueled for my upcoming classes," Reden said with a big smile.

Reden believes if he has learned one thing from acting, it’s that preparation is key.

By choosing to attend MiraCosta College, Reden feels he made the right decision which will make him feel more prepared when he transfers.

To him, these next couple of years are merely the Act I in the play he calls "life."

"Not very sure what Act II is going to be like, but one thing is for sure—without MiraCosta College, an Act II wouldn’t be possible."

LAUREN FLAHERTY LAUREN FLAHERTY

LAUREN FLAHERTY


Lauren Flaherty has a great reason for attending MiraCosta College; she wants an affordable, quality education. And the reason for wanting to become a nurse? Flaherty’s experiences while suffering through the ravages of Crohn’s disease exposed her to "the remarkable medical professionals who helped me through those most challenging times."

Flaherty is like most of the nearly 15,000 students at MiraCosta College taking classes for credit in pursuit of a degree, certificate, transfer to a four-year university, or just to brush up on their skills.

MiraCosta College has what you’re looking for.

If you remain unconvinced, ask Flaherty.

"The synergy in the classroom is absolutely amazing!" Flaherty said. "It fuels your spirit and makes you think in a different perspective, challenging your belief system and assists you to reach to new levels of thinking."

Flaherty graduated with an associate degree in nursing in the spring of 2015. Her plans include working as a nurse for a year to gain some experience before returning to school at Cal State San Marcos to earn a master’s degree.

"I plan on entering a specialized field as a nurse practitioner, in a doctor’s office setting, where I will have direct one-on-one interactions with patients and hopefully make a positive difference to those I come in contact with."

Flaherty is a Southern California native who had what she calls a typical childhood, earned good grades and played competitive soccer. On her 18th birthday, she was stricken with Crohn’s disease, an inflammation of the intestines that can cause extreme abdominal pain, weight loss or worse.

By Flaherty’s reckoning, she was in out of doctor’s offices and hospital emergency rooms for years before the condition could be brought under control. It was during that time, Flaherty said, that "I made one of the most significant decisions of my life, for my career, to be a nurse practitioner. I want to give back and touch lives, like the medical professionals who touched my life and made such a major difference to me. I want to help as many individuals as possible in my lifetime."

LaurenFlahertyThe desire to go into medicine is starting to run in the family. A younger brother also wants to become a nurse practitioner and has enrolled at MiraCosta College’s Nursing Program as well.

Flaherty, a Carlsbad resident, isn’t new to the Oceanside Campus. She started attending MiraCosta College classes during summer breaks in high school.

"I really enjoyed how small and intimate my classes were, and I had really awesome teachers, where I could get one-on-one instruction with very personal, quality rapport. Last year, I took the Certified Nursing Assistant Class at MiraCosta and loved my experience so much. Then, when I was accepted into MiraCosta’s Nursing Program, I knew this was `home,’ where I wanted to partake in my exciting career journey and complete my nursing educational program."

She has especially high praise for MiraCosta College’s intimate class sizes, talented professors and a staff looking out for the student’s best interest.

"Consider yourself blessed if accepted into the MiraCosta Nursing Program!" Flaherty said.

LIZETTE HILL LIZETTE HILL

LIZETTE HILL


MiraCosta College dance student Lizette Hill’s passion for dancing all started on her third grade playground where she watched another student practice her dance moves during recess.

"I didn’t even know what choreography was," said Hill. "I continued to watch her in awe and a week later I enrolled myself in a dance studio."

This all started Hill’s love affair with dance that has lasted throughout her life.

Today, she is skilled in the art of hiphop, salsa, tap and ballet.

In 2014, Hill graduated from El Camino High School and because she was not immediately accepted to UCLA, she enrolled at MiraCosta College.

"I was already familiar with MiraCosta after having attended the Summer Bridge Program during my junior year," said Hill.

Though she knew MiraCosta was a great place to start, she was skeptical about the quality of MiraCosta College’s dance program. After the first day of class, she realized she had made the right decision. Hill found the program to be challenging, but offered in an extremely caring and intimate atmosphere.

"The instructors are absolutely amazing here and I’ve been so blessed to get to work with them and learn from them," said Hill. "They really add to the support system that dancers need."

Also adding to her support system is Hill’s biggest inspiration: her family. Although she grew up in a single parent home, she always had both her parents’ support. They taught her to "believe in yourself, do what you want to do and don’t let anything stop you."

Hill put those words to use during her senior year in high school when for about six months her family lost their home and ended up living at a friend’s house.

"That experience was tough, but it actually drew me closer to dance," said Hill. "I didn’t want to go ‘home’ so I kept myself at the studio for as long as I could to practice. Dance was literally my guardian angel that kept me going."

Today, Hill is finishing her first year at MiraCosta College. She hopes to transfer to UCLA and be part of a dance team or be a back-up dancer for a well-known artist then ultimately own a dance studio that caters to low-income families.

For now however, Hill just has one thing on her mind.

"I just want to keep growing as an artist, perform in front of people as much as possible and dance for as long as I can."

JUNJIE LEO FANG JUNJIE "LEO" FANG

JUNJIE "LEO" FANG


New country? New culture? New language? No problem.

Meet Junjie "Leo" Fang, one of five recipients of the 2017 Medal of Honor, the highest academic achievement award at MiraCosta College. Less than a year after arriving in San Diego County from his hometown of Suzhou, China, following his 2015 high school graduation, Fang enrolled at MiraCosta when he found he had missed an application deadline for UC San Diego.

Good thing. With a 4.0 grade point average and MiraCosta College associate degree in hand, Fang is transferring to UC Berkeley this fall to study chemical engineering.

"It was a good decision to come here," he said. "MiraCosta is a beautiful campus, I’ve had a lot of support from my professors, and the people here are super nice."

Fang picked up more than his share of admirers along the way.

"He moved here by himself and really didn’t now the language or the culture and didn’t know too many people, either," said Edward Pohlert, a mentor who serves as MiraCosta College’s faculty director of Retention Services. "His adaptability to a new environment has been impressive."

Fang wasn’t planning on enrolling at MiraCosta College when he first arrived here in 2015. His educational roadmap pointed to UCSD, where he quickly enrolled in an English language program offered through the university’s Extension. From there, he was hoping to enroll as a full-time student studying chemical engineering, but he missed a deadline to apply as an international student and opted to investigate MiraCosta College instead.

"MiraCosta was one of the few community colleges that was still taking applications, so I came up for a visit, saw it had a very nice campus, and learned about its very high transfer rates."

Fang devoted himself to his studies from the moment he arrived. Enrolling in up to 22 units per semester, he had little time for anything else. Fang did, however, serve as a math, physics and chemistry coach in the Tutoring and Academic Support Center (TASC).

Pohlert said Fang stood out from the day he arrived at the tutoring center.

"His way of explaining concepts is impressive," Pohlert said. "He has mastered the art of tutoring in a very difficult subject."

Fang, who earned his associate degree in mathematics, said his long-term plan include a master’s degree in chemical engineering and working in a career focused around materials science and engineering.

Said Pohlert: "Junjie is the promise of what a community college experience can have."

TRAVIS WILLIAMSON TRAVIS WILLIAMSON

TRAVIS WILLIAMSON


MiraCosta College graduate Travis Williamson was awarded the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship in 2014, which pays up to $30,000 annually for tuition and living expenses as he pursues his bachelor’s degree in international relations at Cornell University.

"I’m honored and really excited," said Williamson, an honor student who graduated from MiraCosta College in 2014 with an associate degree in liberal arts, with an emphasis in social and behavioral sciences.

Williamson is just the second MiraCosta College student to receive the award. Jamie Cook, who now studies at UC Riverside, secured the scholarship in 2012. Williamson is planning to pursue a career in foreign service, an area in which he became interested after studying Arabic at Palomar College before transferring to MiraCosta.

Faculty and staff at MiraCosta College who know Williamson say no one was more deserving of the scholarship. Business instructor Christina Hata is one of them.

"Travis possesses a unique combination of keen intelligence, exceptional interpersonal skills and true compassion for the disenfranchised," Hata said. "Travis is also one of the most diligent and responsible human beings you will ever meet. These attributes will serve him well in his professional and academic endeavors. Regardless of what he chooses to do, we will be hearing his name again, and I promise when we hear it, it will be due to the depth and scope of the contribution he will most definitely make toward issues of fairness, equity, and peace."

Williamson was one of 85 community college scholars across the country to be selected for the award in 2014. The scholarship is granted based on achievement and academic ability; persistence; leadership; a desire to help others; and financial need.

"It’s an extremely difficult, very thorough application process," said Diane Danielewicz, financial aid/scholarship specialist at MiraCosta College. "The people who are chosen are people who are planning to make a difference in the world."

Williamson, an Encinitas native, landed at MiraCosta College after moving back to North County from Missouri, where he moved as a teen when his father, a general contractor, decided to study at the International House of Prayer, a charismatic Christian mission organization based in Kansas City. Williamson came back to Encinitas for a while to help care for a grandfather who had suffered a stroke, then returned to the House of Prayer to study to become a minister.

"I did a lot of soul searching and I realized the ministry wasn’t my calling," Williamson said.

Williamson returned to North County for good in 2009. He earned a certificate in library technology from Palomar College but "by the time I finished, it was the tail end of the recession and no libraries were hiring anybody. I finally came to accept that if I was going to have any kind of career, I would have to go back to school and get an actual degree."

He enrolled at MiraCosta College as a full-time student while taking Arabic classes at Palomar. Studying Arabic led Williamson to learn more about Islam, Arabic culture and Middle East politics. He attended meetings of the Muslim Student Association at Palomar and sessions at Hillel, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, which has a chapter at MiraCosta College. Williamson later immersed himself in the United Nations Association’s San Diego Chapter. What he took away were the common values that Middle Eastern cultures share and that what is lacking most is understanding.

"I decided I wanted to work to build bridges between cultures," Williamson said. And he is committed to making a difference in the world by working in the Foreign Service.

He will get a boost in reaching his dreams through the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship.

"Diane Danielewicz told me that one of the reasons people don’t get the scholarship is because they don’t take the time or make the effort to go for it," Williamson said. "I figured I’d give it a shot. If it didn’t work out, well, okay. But if I was awarded a scholarship, it would be life-changing."

In addition to the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship, Williamson received the MiraCosta College Medal of Honor in 2014. It is the college’s highest academic honor.

ALA TIATIA ALA TIATIA

ALA TIATIA


Ala Tiatia dreams of one day performing on Broadway. Originally from the small town of Ridgecrest, California, Tiatia wanted to attend American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) in New York after high school, but couldn't afford the tuition.

Instead, he moved to Oceanside and enrolled at MiraCosta College, where he has thrived.

"Coming from a background where I didn't have anything, scholarships have been such a blessing" said Tiatia. "They've helped with my basic needs so that I can thoroughly focus on my dreams."

The last time anyone saw Tiatia on stage was as Robert, the tap-dancing groom-to-be in MiraCosta College's spring 2015 musical, The Drowsy Chaperone.

The full-time dramatic arts theatre major, Tiatia is heavily involved in MiraCosta's Theatre Department as well as the Music and Dance departments. He has appeared in numerous vocal jazz shows, dance performances, plays and musicals while still finding the time to serve as a student ambassador. With a busy schedule, Tiatia needs all the help he can get to keep his focus on school. He continuously applies for scholarships and says anything he earns has been a tremendous blessing.

"MiraCosta College has been great! I'm really glad I came here first instead of New York," said Tiatia. "I feel very blessed to be here and the college has given me all the resources I need to have a successful career on Broadway."

He has transferred to CSU Fullerton to earn a B.A. in Fine Arts.