Fifteen years ago, UF made a bold move for social mobility: Give economically disadvantaged first-generation students a scholarship package that covers the works. Where are they now? We caught up with a few of those first Opportunity Scholars.
In 2006, 444 young Floridians were bouncing between euphoria and despair.
They had just gained admission to the University of Florida, the first in their families to attend college.
But how would they pay? As some of Florida’s most economically disadvantaged high school graduates, they lacked both a financial cushion and, as their families’ trailblazers, a blueprint to navigate the mysterious world of higher education.
And then, a letter.
“I am very pleased to inform you that you have been selected as a Florida Opportunity Scholar.”
Celebrating 15 years, the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars (MFOS) program, as it would come to be known, has at last official count seen 3,347 low-income, first-generation students graduate debt-free. The scholarship covers tuition, books and living expenses, as well as provides a host of supports, including peer mentors and financial literacy and life skills workshops, for between 300 and 400 entering freshman each year.
“MFOS changed my life,” says Marquitta Brown, a member of that first class, “because college was a dream that became a reality.”
As this inaugural class’s stories bear out, MFOS creates expanding circles of success, with communities and family members reaping the benefits of just one person’s improved path.
A path forged, thanks to the scholarship, on a more level playing field.
“This program is a true equalizing force in our very unequal society,” says Amelia Harnish, another graduate of that first cohort. “It’s not just studying that makes success possible. I was able to do key unpaid internships, even one in New York City, that helped launch my career. I was able to join a sorority and find a home at UF. I was able to study without worrying about how I would eat or pay bills. It was very freeing.”
And from that freedom, opportunity. To explore, to take chances, to pursue a life passion rather than settle for a paycheck.
And to ultimately see their talents given back to the wider world.
Says Opportunity Scholar Jess Wardell: “It was the biggest blessing I didn’t know existed.”
Here, catch up with a few members of that first MFOS class:
“My family now has a point of reference for what education can do.”
Sharda Jackson Smith
Then: “My parents and grandparents worked blue-collar jobs,” says Jackson Smith. They wanted better for her. “They thought my mind could take me further than my physical body could take me,” she says. Jackson Smith set out to prove them right, taking AP and Cambridge program courses at Belleview High in Marion County. Her letter announcing the Opportunity Scholarship was met with “disbelief” – was this for real? “We were so excited when we found out it was legitimate!”
UF in Three Words: “Exciting, life-changing, stimulating.”
Now: Jackson Smith (BAE ’10, MEd ’11, EdD ’17) recently purchased her first home in Chesnee, S.C., and serves as interim assistant dean of the School of Education, Human Performance, and Health at the University of South Carolina Upstate. She married her high school sweetheart and they have a 7-year-old daughter. “I serve on several community- and service-oriented committees and look to give back with my knowledge, as my late grandparents told me to do,” she says. Her success has inspired those closest to her, too, “showing my immediate and extended family that there are institutions that care about the well-being of people from marginalized backgrounds,” she says. “I am the first, but my family now has a living point of reference for what education can do.”
“MFOS helped me achieve both of our dreams.”
Then: Boireau’s parents, the oldest of their siblings, had not been able to finish their studies. So they instilled in their children the value of education. “I can remember talks when my mom and dad would remind us that education was our only way out,” says Boireau. Always a strong student, Boireau’s plan at Maynard Evans High in Orlando was to get as much college credit as she could before graduating, so she packed her schedule with AP and dual enrollment courses. Her guidance counselor provided the map, pushing her to take higher level courses. “She saw something in me in the 9th grade when I believed I was worth nothing,” Boireau says. The scholarship provided the lifeline. “I am the daughter of immigrants whose only dream was that their kids would have a better life,” she says. “MFOS helped me achieve both of our dreams.”
UF in Three Words:“Impactful, life changing, fun.”
Now: Like her high school mentor, Boireau (BSA ’10, Med ’15, EdS ’15) is a school counselor. She lives in Ocala, and although she loves to travel – Paris is a recent favorite destination – for now she has put down roots in Marion County: “In 2019, I became the first person in my family to own my own home!” she says.
“Not having student loans allowed me to take risks.”
Then: Kwong recalls a rough transition from her native Hong Kong to the U.S. at age 10. Her father found work as a waiter, but no one in the family spoke English and Kwong became an easy target for elementary school bullies. A few short years later, though, she would be taking all gifted and honors classes at J.P. Taravella High in Coral Springs, drawing motivation from her parents’ journey. “They gave up everything they had, from family to career, for us to come to America and get a better education,” she says.
UF in Three Words:“Rewarding, developmental, foundational.”
Now: Kwong (BSBA ’10), who would go on to the Ivy League to get an MBA from Wharton, is chief of staff in strategy and operations at Box in San Francisco. She is married – “all of my bridesmaids were from UF!” – and just bought a house. Her life has included travel to more than 25 countries. “Not having student loans allowed me to take risks in my professional career … and develop an intentional career path to get me to where I’m today,” she says.
“I was eager to break that cycle.”
Then: “I was born and raised in rough socioeconomic conditions and at times poverty,” says Lionel, the son of a construction subcontractor and homemaker. “I was eager to break that cycle.” Despite that desire, as well as having parents who provided encouragement and graduating with honors from Robert Hungerford Prep in Maitland, “I never really thought college was an option, much less the University of Florida.” A guidance counselor encouraged Lionel to apply, and his acceptance, and in particular the receipt of the Florida Opportunity scholarship, were joyous affairs for him and his family. “We were elated,” he says. “We were just so happy that we had a way to pay for college. MFOS is the sole reason that I continued my education at UF.”
UF in Three Words:“Memorable, valuable, life-changing.”
Now: “I’m working for a Top 5 homebuilder as a manager and loving life in South Florida!” says Lionel (BSBC ’10), who has received several professional accolades and is working toward a master’s degree. He and his wife, also a Gator, live in Miami, and have two young daughters who keep them busy. They are also landlords, with an eye toward acquiring more rental properties. Of his full and happy life he says: “All of it is possible only because of MFOS and its donors.”
“I now serve as a resource for my family.”
Then: “The burning desire to create a better life for myself and my family motivated me to excel in school,” says Delaughter, who was raised by a single mom. Delaughter had support and encouragement along the way, taking honors and AP courses at Miami Norland Senior High, but her determination came from within. “Even when things were difficult,” she says, “the ambition to finish what I’d started kept me going. I knew that completing my undergraduate degree program would give me the tools to prosper in life.”
UF in Three Words:“Empowering, enriching, invaluable.”
Now: Delaughter (BSHED ’10) went on to receive a master’s degree and is now a program manager at the Florida Department of Health in Miami. She has been recognized nationally, in South Florida and at UF for her career achievements in public health. She and her husband have two daughters and a dog and are in the process of purchasing their first home. “Being a first-generation college graduate has brought a sense of pride to myself and my family,” she says. “I am viewed as one with an accumulation of knowledge and I serve as a resource for my family.” Perhaps best of all? Her success has had a ripple effect, “motivating younger generations to follow in my footsteps.”
“I wanted to put myself on the path to success.”
Then: “My path to UF was challenging,” says Rodriguez, who worked two jobs while taking AP classes at Spanish River High in Boca Raton and dual enrollment courses. “I over-extended myself for sure, but I wanted to do everything possible to put myself on a path to success.” Her parents – a housekeeper and teacher’s assistant who migrated to the U.S. from Venezuela and Colombia – were her motivation: “I wanted to make sure all of their hard work and sacrifice paid off.”
UF in Three Words: “Challenge, resilience, transformative.”
Now: “My life now is busy but wonderful,” says Rodriguez (BA ’09), who went on to earn master’s degrees and now lives in San Jose, California, where she works as a senior brand marketing manager at Realtor.com. “Since finishing school my career has taken me to Miami, Austin, San Francisco and San Jose. I’ve also had the opportunity to speak at Google to a group of executives – a big career achievement.” She’s traveled, mostly solo, to 49 countries, and has also enjoyed exploring California with her partner and dog.
“It was a blessing.”
Andres Felipe Sanchez, M.D.
Then: The son of an immigrant single mom who worked as a housekeeper, Sanchez nonetheless describes his childhood as full of opportunity: He was able to pursue many extracurricular activities, including aerospace academy and math club, and ultimately graduated fourth in his class at Felix Varela Senior High in Miami. His mother’s hard work and dreams for her son motivated him. “It was a blessing to learn tuition and boarding would be covered by the [Florida Opportunity] scholarship,” he says.
The UF Experience: “There was a great balance between scholarship and building friendships.”
Now: Sanchez (BS ’10), who is recently married, did his internal medicine residency at Yale. He now works as a primary care physician in Charlotte, NC.
“The acceptance to UF and the scholarship saved my life.”
Then: “My life was very traumatic, to say the least,” says Brown. “My teenage years were spent working, playing sports and doing schoolwork just to stay away from the house as much as I could.” She took honors classes at Miami Carol City Senior High, and credits good friends, her brothers and her faith for keeping her on track. “I remember praying so hard for good grades because I knew that was my ticket out of this situation,” she says. “I loved school and I knew school was the only thing that would get me out of Miami.”
The UF Experience: “UF wasn’t just an opportunity,” she says, “it was my safe place. Looking back, the acceptance to UF and the scholarship saved my life.”
Now: UF’s home became Brown’s home. She is now a police sergeant with the Gainesville Police Department, an answer to a lifelong dream to work in law enforcement, particularly with young people. Brown (BA ’09) and her husband are the parents of twins, and they have a Labrador. Free time is spent working toward a master’s degree, volunteering at church, playing flag football and basketball, coaching youth basketball and traveling with friends. “Life is amazing,” Brown says.
“I have the kind of stability and freedom I dreamed of growing up.”
Then: Harnish grew up with loving parents, but always acutely aware of the precariousness of life for those without a financial safety net. Her mother was disabled when Harnish was young and her father, a long-haul trucker, suffered from Hepatitis C, likely undiagnosed for many years. By Harnish’s high school years, he was at end-stage liver disease. Harnish found solace in school and extracurriculars, motivated by her mother. “She was always very clear with my sisters and I: Education is your way out,” says Harnish, who took college-track courses at King High in Tampa. “If we wanted our lives to be different, we had to go to college. She was my tireless advocate.” She was also driven from within. “It was always very clear to me: Poverty is terrible and I wanted desperately to escape it.”
UF in Three Words: “Wild, challenging, special.”
Now: Harnish’s father would pass away during her sophomore year at UF, but she is grateful he was able to see her accepted and help her move in. Two days after graduation, without a job or housing, Harnish (BA ’10, BSJ ’10) moved to New York City. “It was intimidating, but I had nothing to lose at the time,” she says. She remains in New York, where she works as a Web content director and writer, and her journalism has been published in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Vice, and “a lot of the magazines I devoured as a kid.” She lives with her partner of 10 years, has travelled to six continents, and serves on the advisory board for the UF College of Journalism and Communications. “I have the kind of stability and freedom I dreamed of growing up,” she says. “This program made my life and career possible.”
“If it wasn’t for the MFOS I may have taken a completely different path.”
Then: “I had a bit of a tumultuous childhood,” says Kolesky, who was raised by a single father who worked as a musician and at a tech support call center. “He was a very loving man, but we did not have a lot of money. We bounced around a lot.” His grandmother was a stabilizing influence, and Kolesky would go on to take AP and honors courses at Northeast High in Oakland Park, where he was president of the science club – “We built some pretty awesome bottle rockets.” – and math club. “I wanted to be an engineer and help build the future,” he says.
UF in Three Words:“Life-changing, unforgettable, fantastic.”
Now: Kolesky (BSMSE ’10) earned a doctorate in engineering sciences at Harvard and is now a senior associate at a life science innovation institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He married a fellow Gator and they just bought a house outside Boston that they share with a dog and cat. Although they miss Florida weather six months out of the year, Kolesky says he’s “having a great time building new companies, inventing new technologies, and I hope that they help improve people’s lives over time.” He credits MFOS with not only opening the door for him to pursue his chosen course of study, but for providing the steppingstones for other firsts in his family: the first to pursue a scientific career, to earn a Ph.D., to publish scientific articles, to be granted a patent. “If it wasn’t for the MFOS I may have taken a completely different path,” he says.
“I really wanted to get out of poverty and I saw education as my path towards that future.”
Then: Dilernia, the youngest of seven children, grew up on a farm in rural Hawaii. When she was 10, “my father got a job at a hotel and we moved across the world to Miami,” she says. But her father would become disabled and her mother supported the family as a part-time file clerk. The local library became Dilernia’s escape – “We still struggled with poverty, but at least I could walk there for the internet and books.” She took honors courses and participated in Navy Junior ROTC at Miami Beach Senior High, and ended up at a competition at UF. “It was then I knew I wanted to go to UF, so I spent the rest of high school working towards that goal,” she says. “I really wanted to get out of poverty and I saw education as my path towards that future.”
UF in Three Words: “Fun, challenging, new.”
Now: Because she graduated without debt, Dilernia (BA ’09) says she was not pressured to take the first job she could land. She spent two years as an AmeriCorps member. “Since then,” she says, “I have been dedicated to social impact, and it wouldn’t be possible with my college experience.” Dilernia went on to receive an MBA and is now founder of a company that provides expertise to nonprofits and government agencies. “I am happily married, but unfortunately we are a house divided [he’s a Miami Hurricanes Fan]. We live in Miami with our four cats.” They recently purchased her grandmother’s old house in Hawaii, “so we now have a three-acre farm that my mom lives on with her cat and many plants.”
“MFOS changed my family’s life as well.”
Then: Molina’s parents left Colombia with the dream of giving Molina and his younger brother a better life. His father ran a small landscaping business and his mother helped at times, and occasionally cleaned houses. Molina took his role as eldest sibling seriously: “I wanted to give my younger brother a blueprint I never had. I wanted to show him what we as a family could do, and what we as individuals were capable of.” That meant figuring out the mysterious world of college. He enrolled in the IB program at St. Pete High and took aim at UF “because it was the best institution in the state. … In a way, looking back, I put all of my eggs in one basket.” He remembers the acceptance letter coming in the mail, and then the letter from MFOS. “Elated, speechless, beyond grateful,” is the reaction he recalls.
UF in Three Words: “Unforgettable, profound, special.”
Now: Molina (BA ’10), who went on to get a master’s degree and Ph.D., is a research analyst with the Houston Education Research Consortium at Rice University. He married a fellow Gator and they have two rescue dogs, one named Flo, for Florida. They enjoy the food scene in Houston and recently travelled to Vietnam and Colombia. Oh, and his younger brother? He ended up graduating as a Gator as well. “MFOS not only changed my life,” says Molina, “but it changed my family’s life as well.”
“I had the chance to fully engage in university life.”
Then: “In my house, it was expected that we would perform well in school,” says Gammons, who took honors and AP classes at Miami Central Senior High. Her parents, who worked as hotel cleaners, instilled in their five children “that we were not beneath anyone and that education could provide us with endless opportunities.” When Gammons was 14, her mother passed away, but Gammons continued to focus on her studies, encouraged by her three sisters and brother – all strong, serious students. When, during her junior year, the family was approved for green cards, “my siblings pushed me to apply for state universities and seek funding opportunities,” she says. “Since I was now eligible, I was motivated to do well not only for myself, but for them as well.” She would be accepted to all of the state universities, encouraged by her family “to pursue greatness.”
UF in Three Words: “Opportunity, growth, isolation.”
Now: “The scholarship was a godsend,” says Gammons (BS ’09, MEd ’13, EdS ’13, PhD ’20), who points not only to coverage for tuition, books, food and rent, but to the equalizing effect of being free of work and worry. “I had the chance to fully engage in university life,” she says, “and to truly have an amazing undergraduate experience, like the majority of my peers.” And because she was not saddled by undergraduate student loans, she was able to continue her education at UF. She recently finished her Ph.D. in higher education administration, and, doctorate in hand, is looking for her next employment adventure, and life adventure with her husband and three children. “My family and I love to travel,” she says, “and we’re debt-free.”
“Having stability during undergrad allowed me to focus on my studies.”
Then: Lewis had a strong support system in his mother, who worked in customer service, and a community of relatives who celebrated his achievements. “I always had an internal motivation to continue my schooling to make my family, and especially my mother, proud and to achieve success and financial freedom,” he says. He attended Manatee High in Bradenton, where he took AP and honors classes. Upon receiving the Opportunity Scholars letter? “My family was extremely proud and overjoyed at the recognition.”
UF in Three Words:“Championships, excitement, friends.”
Now: “Having financial aid and stability during undergrad allowed me to focus on my studies,” says Lewis (BSBA ’10, BA ’10). “I am six years into a fast-paced law career” – Lewis works as a private equity attorney – “and I’m a recent homeowner in Boston.” He travels as often as possible “to as many far-away destinations as I can.”
“MFOS opened my eyes to opportunities and people I might not have encountered.”
Then: Gayahan grew up in a home where her parents – her father was a grounds maintenance worker and her mother a retirement home dietary service aide – prioritized academics and education beyond high school. “It was never a question of whether I would attend college,” says Gayahan, who also dual enrolled while at William R. Boone High in Orlando, “but more what I would be studying in college.”
UF in Three Words:“Fulfilling, adventurous, eye-opening.”
Now: “In addition to easing the financial aspect of attending a university, MFOS changed my life by introducing me to classes and organizations that opened my eyes to opportunities and people I might not have encountered,” says Gayahan (BSA ’10). She lives in Atlanta, where she works as a structural designer focused on packaging. “When I am not taking online classes and workshops to further my knowledge in my field, I’ve been enjoying local hikes and camping trips in northern Georgia,” she says.
“My mother never had the opportunity to earn her high school diploma.”
Then: Jocelyn says her mother, who worked as a certified nursing assistant, was her inspiration. “She immigrated from Haiti at 19,” she says, “and never had the opportunity to earn her high school diploma or college degree. She motivated me to work hard and succeed in school because she valued education and knew that higher education would open doors.” Jocelyn took honors classes at Maynard Evans High School in Orlando, and dual enrollment courses.
UF in Three Words: “Rewarding, unforgettable, transformative.”
Now: Jocelyn, who went on to earn a master’s degree and is currently pursuing a Ph.D., is a speech-language pathologist at a charter school in Washington, D.C. She also teaches at Howard University and supervises graduate students at Howard University Speech and Hearing Clinic. “I volunteer at my church and within my professional organization,” she says, “and I spend the limited free time I have traveling to various parts of the world.” She credits MFOS, among many other things, for that well-worn passport, with stamps from every continent except Australia and Antarctica. “I was able to use my scholarship to study abroad, which sparked my love for traveling,” she says.
“Without MFOS, I don’t know that I would have even attended UF.”
Then: Wardell’s father passed away as she was entering Seminole High in Pinellas County. Watching her mother, a waitress, provide for the family inspired Wardell to “pursue excellence in everything I did,” she says. “I loved school, always. But seeing her work ethic gave me the best role model to do the same.” Wardell took AP and honors classes, and worked throughout high school to save for the future. UF was her dream school, “but it felt slightly out of reach,” she says. And then, the acceptance letter and scholarship. “To say I felt proud would be a great understatement.”
UF in Three Words:“Growth, joy, inspirational.”
Now: After years as a full-time teacher, Wardell (BA ’10, MEd ’11) works part-time at an Atlanta-area start-up co-founded by her husband, a fellow Gator. She “designs and implements meaningful play experiences for kids” at the business, a club for families. They have three young children and a Goldendoodle and live in Marietta, Georgia. “Without MFOS, I don’t know that I would have even attended UF,” she says. “I would have never received the level of preparation I got from the College of Education, would have never been the teacher I am proud to say that I am, would have never made the relationships that have shaped me as an adult. It was the biggest blessing I didn’t know existed.”
“It gave my mother peace of mind, knowing her child would be able to achieve her dreams.”
Then: Bing’s mother, who worked as a file clerk, was Bing’s biggest motivator. “She moved to the U.S. to make a better life for her and my sister before I was born,” she says. “Everything that I have accomplished is only because of her encouragement.” Bing graduated from Samuel W. Wolfson High School in Jacksonville having taken honors, AP and dual enrollment classes. And the scholarship letter? “Beyond grateful,” she says. “MFOS is the reason I was able to obtain my degree. It also provided my mother with peace of mind, knowing that her child would be able to achieve her dreams.”
UF in Three Words:“Transformative, exciting, significant.”
Now: Bing went on to earn two master’s degree and is an assistant principal at a K-8 charter school in Ocoee. She and her husband, a fellow educator, have three children. In 2015, Bing received the New American Hero/Teacher of the Year award. “I can’t describe how honored I was to know that my colleagues felt that I was making a difference in my classroom everyday,” she says.
“I just wanted to help my family and experience a new way of living.”
Then: “Life was difficult before attending UF,” says Blake, who lived in Jacksonville with her retired grandmother and attended Andrew Jackson Senior High School. Her grandmother provided motivation, “but I wasn’t sure I would be able to attend college,” she says. “I just wanted to help my family and experience a new way of living.”
UF in Three Words: “Fun, informative, challenging.”
Now: Blake, who returned to Jacksonville, is now a therapist for children living in foster care. “Right now I’m focused on creative expression and using it to help others. I recently started a blog to educate about the effects of trauma while building a community for trauma survivors and visually showing how to cope, manage, and/or overcome trauma.” One proud moment? She recently self-published a book, ‘From Confusion to Clarity: A Support Guide for Social Service Professionals Experiencing Exhaustion and Burnout.’”
“I was given the opportunity for a better outcome in life.”
Then: Thomas’s high school years revolved around being helpful to her mother and serving as a role model for her younger siblings. She took honors classes at Miami Carol City Senior High and was focused, she says, “on making something of myself and not being limited in any way by my environment or circumstance.”
UF in Three Words: “Tough, fantastic, eye-opening.”
Now: Thomas went on to earn a master’s degree and now lives in Broward County, where she is a supervisor with the Florida Department of Education Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. She is working on her licensure in clinical social work, with an eye toward starting a business that provides psychotherapy and career services. She sums up her MFOS experience: “I was given the opportunity for a better outcome in life. I was given a chance to succeed and I have not looked back.”
“I would not be where I am today without MFOS.”
Then: Smith took honors and AP classes at William R. Boone High in Orlando, and had supportive parents and bright, motivated friends to propel him, “but I did not have many mentors to help guide me. Because of this, I did not have a clear idea about what potential career opportunities were available to me.”
UF in Three Words: “Fun, formative, foundational.”
Now: “I would not be where I am today without MFOS,” says Smith, who lives in Highland Park, N.J., and is currently completing a postdoctoral fellowship in respiratory toxicology at Rutgers University. “MFOS engendered a sense of accomplishment and self-worth that promoted my own self-confidence and self-efficacy, both of which helped propel me to and through graduate school.” He was recently recognized by the Society of Toxicology for his research and commitment to education and training. “Outside of my research,” he says, “I enjoy hiking and spending time down at the Jersey Shore.”
“My work changes the lives of the children and families I work with daily.”
Then: Khan was that rare student who knew in high school what her future would hold: a career as a speech-language pathologist. “I was passionate about my field. I wanted to get out there and start working with kids with various communication disorders.” That, coupled with a desire to make her parents and younger sisters proud, made the choice to aim for UF an easy one. She took honors and AP courses at Miami Northwestern High and worked hard to make herself a competitive candidate. “There was no other option but to do well,” she says.
UF in Three Words: “Challenging, inspiring, awesome.”
Now: “Without MFOS, my journey to becoming a speech-language pathologist may not have happened, and if it did, it would have been a much longer and more trying journey,” says Khan, who went on to get a master’s degree and now lives in Mountain View, California, where she’s a mom and a speech-language pathologist “for one of the top school districts in the state!” Through her work, the effect of MFOS has radiated outward, “changing the lives of the children and families I work with daily. It’s been a domino effect of positivity.”
“I knew from a very young age that I would need to work harder.”
Then: “I grew up in a low-income area and it was difficult to see a way out at times,” says Hayes, whose mother supported the family as a housekeeping supervisor. Hayes worked close to full time at McDonald’s while attending New Port Richey’s Ridgewood High, where she took AP courses and was also dual enrolled. “I gave up sports my senior year so I could work more, because there were never enough hours in the days to get school work, extra curriculars and work done.” But she was driven. “I knew from a very young age that if I ever wanted to have a chance at an education that I would need to work harder.”
UF in Three Words: “Challenge, development, Tebow!”
Now: Hayes, who lives in Vero Beach, went on to get a master’s degree and is a territory manager at Corteva Agriscience. “I am very passionate about Florida agriculture,” she says. “I did not come from a rural area of Florida so I was not exposed to farming until I got to UF. I am forever grateful for that.”