We asked four Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars alumni to talk about their unbreakable bonds with the women who stood with them through hardships and glories on the road to the University of Florida and beyond. These trailblazing sons and daughters — the first in the families to go to college — share the lessons learned from their greatest fans.
“She has always been there to offer sound advice and to listen.”
Scholar: Khrysten Sears (BA ’09)
Mom: Samantha Sears
It was more than a backpack swollen with books that weighed on Khrysten Sears when she enrolled at UF in 2006. On her hip was a 6-month-old daughter, Allannah. But Sears didn’t have to carry the burdens of motherhood and college classes by herself. Her own mom, Samantha, was with her the entire time — even if 250 miles away in Belle Glade, their hometown.
“She helped me in every way possible, from traveling to Gainesville whenever I needed her to offering sincere words of encouragement,” Sears says. “She has always been there to offer sound advice and to listen whenever I need a listening ear. Her words of encouragement continue to get me through situations that seem impossible.”
Her mother’s wisdom all those years ago when Sears was a UF freshman still sing to her soul.
“There were times when many people would say I wouldn’t succeed because I had a child so young,” Sears recalls. “She assured me that it wasn’t the end of my life. She taught me that mistakes don’t mean it’s the end of the world. All things happen for a reason.”
Now a mother of two daughters, Sears, a speech-language pathologist in Palm Beach County, is quick to take her mother’s words to heart.
“I’ve learned from my mother to be very open and honest with my daughters,” she says. “And to always be there to listen to everything they want to share.”
“She taught me to take risks and never stay in my comfort zone.”
Scholar: Itzhak Nevati (BSISE ’19)
Mom: Martha Sanchez
New neighborhood. New culture. New school. New language. Those are what welcomed Itzhak Nevati to his brand new life in Miami in 2012. Any of them alone would have been challenging enough. Those things together, to a high school sophomore with an eye toward college, were spirit crushing.
Encouragement came from teachers and mentors. None more so than his mom. Martha Sanchez and her children had emigrated from Colombia with a better education in mind. She wouldn’t let that opportunity slip away from her son.
“She became my support system, and that was the biggest encouragement to aspire to do well,” Nevati says. “She would make sure I had all the resources to be successful. She would give me words of affirmation when I needed them. She would stay up late with me if I had exams I needed to study for.”
Even now, Nevati says, his mother’s courage to move to a new country for the sake of her children leaves him in awe.
“She taught me to take risks and to never stay in my comfort zone,” he says. “Seeing her leave everything she knew so we all could have a better life will always be so admirable to me. I have been in the front row watching her journey, and it has made [me] shoot for the stars without hesitation.”
Denver is home now for Nevati, who works with financial services giant KPMG; his mom is still in Miami. But mother and son are still very much together.
“She is the only thing I consider constant in my life,” he says. “It does not matter where I end up, I know she is there for me.”
“She means the definition of strength to me.”
Scholar: Mohamad Merilan (BSTEL ’18)
Mom: Juliette Boisrond
Mohamad Merilan was a middle schooler in Orlando when he became man of the house. That was the year his father walked out and left Merilan’s mother alone to hold things together on a $20,000-a-year Disney World housekeeper’s salary. Merilan, the oldest of her three children, picked up the slack.
“When everyone else was sleeping, I’d wake up a little bit earlier before school to write out checks on the first of the month,” he says. “I thought it was the normal thing to do. I thought that’s what every 12-year-old did.”
Her children feeling “normal” was important to Juliette Boisrond, his mom. She made a point to never let them know how tight money was.
“I didn’t know we were poor until I filled out my FAFSA [college federal financial aid form],” Merilan admits. “She sacrificed so much of her personal desires and dreams to make sure the lights were on, we had food and clothes to wear to school. I just thought that was life. As long as we had the basic necessities things were OK.”
Her strength, he says, inspired him in college and propelled him to a job as an application developer on Wall Street.
“She means the definition of strength to me. When I hear the stories of trauma and setbacks, she just kept on going, no matter what,” Merilan says. “She never quit on us to make sure we could live a better life.”
Being kind and generous was her other life lesson. Even with a modest paycheck, she won’t let the collection basket at church pass without dropping in a bill or two and will dig into her purse when she sees a homeless person.
“She has a really giving heart,” Merilan says. “That’s the reason I never knew we were poor. My mom didn’t act poor.”
“She never stopped cheering me on.”
Scholar: Faith Percival (BSHED ’19)
Mom: Maria Lujan
Even as a little girl in Port St. Lucie, Faith Percival dreamt of going to college. Problem was, she wasn’t sure how she’d get there. All she knew was it wouldn’t happen if she didn’t do well enough in high school. A guidance counselor walked her through UF’s application process and gave her tips on how to stand out.
Percival’s mom, however, wasn’t able to do much to prepare her daughter for academic life after high school. Instead, Maria Lujan became Percival’s biggest cheerleader.
“My mom never really understood the education system,” Percival says. “Yet, despite her little knowledge about college she was always supportive and encouraged me to reach out to my resources at school. She never stopped cheering me on.”
That included keeping a binder overflowing with Percival’s awards and accomplishments. With each passing year the scrapbook became thicker.
“Those little acts of encouragement and love from my mom meant the world to me,” Percival says.
Lujan’s devotion and perception were as important as anything taught in the classroom, Percival believes. Her mother’s best advice: “‘Do something right and with your best effort the first time around. If not, you’ll find yourself taking twice as long having to do it again to fix it.’”
So, with her mom’s words in mind, she does — and it’s paid off. Percival is now working on a UF doctoral degree in pharmacy.
“Mi mami [my mom] is the most important person in my life,” she says. “She’s my best friend and the person who I can always rely on no matter what. I thank God I was blessed with such a hardworking, encouraging and loving mom.”
“My mom sacrificed so much for me to be where I am today.”
Scholar: Beatriz (Hernandez) Miranda (BA ’12, BSA ’12, JD ’16)
Mom: Maria Antonieta
College, in Beatriz Miranda’s Miami home, was less “if” and more “when.” The “how” would be figured out when the time came. Her parents and grandparents insisted education would be her golden ticket to a world of wonder. No one was more reassuring than her mother, Maria Antonieta.
“She constantly told me I was smart and capable of doing great things,” Miranda recalls. “My mom left her entire life — job, friends, family — back in Cuba so I could have a better life. She came to this country and cleaned bathrooms at a Burger King and scrubbed floors at a bakery.”
Those mops and brooms helped open UF’s doors to Miranda, now a lawyer in Tampa.
“I learned so much about hard work, sacrifice and fun,” she says. “My mom sacrificed so much for me to be where I am today. She didn’t come to this country for a luxurious life, and yet she did [her jobs] with such pride and heart. If her job was to clean a toilet, you better believe it would be the cleanest toilet in town and she would have made three friends while doing it.”
A pulmonary embolism claimed Antonieta in 2012, not long after she witnessed her daughter’s UF graduation. But she’s still very much with Miranda in spirit.
“She was incredibly resourceful and kind,” Miranda says. “Now that I’m a mom, my mother’s influence is so much more profound. I miss her terribly and regularly think of how fortunate I was to have her for the time that I did. She was too good for this world, and I cannot wait until we meet again.”
May 4, 2021