Meet Some of the Top Grads of 2020-21!More than 14,000 students earned MDC degrees during this academic school year

President Pumariega taking a selfie with top grads
Commencement 2021 Wolfson & Hialeah at Marlins Stadium on May 1, 2021.

More than 14,000 graduates from Miami Dade College’s eight campuses earend degrees for the 2020-21 academic school year, continuing to demonstrate steady resolution and hard work despite the pandemic. This year’s graduates received their diplomas at three Commencement ceremonies on Saturday, May 1, at loanDepot park (formerly Marlins Park).

Watch the recorded Commencement ceremonies

The Class of 2021 represents 167 nations. Many have already demonstrated leadership abilities and are making significant contributions in their communities, from volunteer work to blazing trails for minorities and running their own nonprofits.

Meet some of the 2021 outstanding graduates:


This May, Heily Rivas, 17, is the fourth in her family to earn an MDC degree. Her mother and both her siblings graduated in the past two years with associate degrees and highest honors. Together with her father, a renowned musician in his native Colombia, they run a music school, Rivas Music & Video, have their own family band, El Grupo H., and host a radio show that airs on Sundays via Facebook page, Radio Paz 830 AM, and 96.1 FM. Rivas is receiving a degree in graphic design and has applied to the Fashion Institute of Technology, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and Savannah College of Art and Design. At the Hialeah Campus, she served as president of the Beta Pi Theta Chapter of Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society, and Student Government Association vice president. She co-founded the Rivas Perdomo Family Foundation to deliver toys, scholarships, musical instruments, clothing, and shoes to underserved children and families in Latin America. Rivas aspires to become a fashion designer with her own brand rooted in the environment, human rights and prosperity.

Wendy Rodriguez is graduating from MDC with a bachelor’s degree in information systems technology with a concentration in cybersecurity. She’s headed to Carnegie Mellon University to pursue a master’s degree in information security policy and management, a first for anyone in her family, who emigrated from Cuba. In addition to her studies, Rodriguez was Campus Election Engagement Project (CEEP) Fellow, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers president, vice president of Honors in Action (PTK), Women in Cybersecurity, Participating in the National Cyber League (NCL), and Hialeah Campus SCHOLARS peer mentor. She was named to the 2020 Phi Theta Kappa All Florida Academic Team and was a recipient of the UFMDC Scholarship, Presidential Volunteer Award; Rodolfo Cruz Scholarship; AT&T Scholar, Being the First (SHPE); and 2021 Phi Theta Kappa Florida Region Best Essay.


First-generation college student Jada Watkins, 20, came to MDC determined to finish what her mother, who raised three children as a single parent, could not. Now, the biomedical sciences major is on her way to fulfilling her dream of attending medical school. The small community at Homestead Campus surrounded her will all the support necessary to allow for total immersion in the college experience. She is the recipient of several prizes and other accolades, including the MDC American Dream Scholarship, the 2020 MDC iCED President Award, and most recently, she was named a 2021 All-Florida Academic Scholar. Watkins was also active in school and community organizations, such as TRIO Student Support Services, Rotary Club of Miami, Phi Beta Lambda and Student Government Association, to name a few. After graduation, she plans to attend Georgia Southern University to pursue her ultimate career goal of becoming an anesthesiologist and a community activist.

Social work major Brenda Itzep,18, overcame obstacles, found support and excelled at MDC. Her brother motivated her to join MDC’s Dual Enrollment Program; and MDC speech professor Adam Vellone provided words of wisdom that inspired her to look beyond negativity. Itzep’s academic success has been recognized with endowments, such as Regions’ First Generation and MDC’s American Dream Scholarships. She also participated in Student Government Association and volunteered her time as a Sunday School teacher and helped recent immigrants connect with resources to support them. She plans to continue her studies at Florida International University and hopes to one day work with Child Protective Services. Her biggest aspiration is to liberate children from the trauma of living in abusive homes and provide them with a stable life to prosper and reach past their limits.


Karl-Julius Müller considers his existence a testament to the power of modern medicine. When his Cuban mother was in her teens, she had endometrial cancer and was told she would never have children. Years later, she became pregnant with him and underwent several surgical procedures to save her son before he was even born. Now he’s on track to become an orthopedic surgeon and business administrator with a goal of improving other people’s lives in developing countries. Müller, who’s father is German, has applied to Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Yale, Cornell, Brown, Princeton, Duke, and the University of Pennsylvania. Müller completed three years of work experience as a business development manager in the hearing care industry, two medical observerships, research with the math department, research with the University of Florida microbiology department, and was a part-time lab assistant in the biology department at MDC. He graduates from MDC with a 3.98 GPA and continues to work to help support his family.

Joshua Ynirio, who was homeschooled his whole life, chose to study economics with the goal of positively impacting the lives of others by helping to analyze, develop and shape public policy. This year, he was a finalist for the prestigious Newman Civic Fellowship Award, the highest honor for student engagement leadership. Ynirio holds a Congressional Certificate of Recognition from Congresswoman Debbie Murcasel-Powell as a Councilmember on the Youth Advisory Council for Florida’s 26th District; and was named Pathfinder of the Year (for the faith-based Pathfinder program). He also served as Director of Legislative Affairs for the Florida College System Student Government Association; Senator in the Legislative Committee in the Kendall Student Government Association; founding executive member and Secretary of Logistics of the United Model Nations Kendall Chapter; Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society member; and Phi Beta Lambda board member; among other student organizations. He also serves as a volunteer coordinator with Christ Fellowship church, enjoys learning new languages and playing the cello, violin, and piano.


Nursing major Krista Garcia, 25, had a master’s degree in autism spectrum disorder when she found her true passion and decided to become a nurse. She chose MDC’s high quality accelerated nursing program, which is taught by leaders in the field, and works in partnership with Jackson Health to provide unique clinical opportunities for students. As a nurse, she hopes to care for, educate, and inspire her community. Garcia plans to work as a trauma or ER nurse and eventually wants to earn a doctoral degree in nursing and teach. During her time at MDC, Garcia, who graduates with 4.0 GPA, participated in extracurricular activities, such as the Special Olympics and Special Needs Ministry. She also devoted countless hours tutoring and encouraging many of her nursing cohorts. She is the recipient of the Joan K. Stout RN Advanced Cardiovascular Nursing Scholarship.

Chislon Griffiths also joined MDC’s nursing program encouraged by its history of excellence. The 34-year-old Jamaican student is also active in the military reserve. He first heard of MDC after moving from Georgia to a military base in Homestead. He is the recipient of the Civic Action Award and the Annual Academic Excellence Award. His ability to remain cool under pressure, strong focus and critical thinking skills are among some of the many qualities that Griffiths’ professors and mentors have identified as key to his success and journey in the nursing field. After graduation, he plans to attend Walden University with the goal of one day obtaining a master’s in nursing informatics.


As the editor-in-chief of The Reporter, MDC’s award-winning student newspaper, mass communication and journalism major Adriana Dos Santos, dedicated over 20 hours per week to overseeing a staff of more than 40 student journalists and the biweekly paper’s overall operation, including a strong social media presence. All of this, while maintaining good grades and participating in Phi Theta Kappa and the Venezuelan Student Alliance, among other volunteer activities. Born in Venezuela, Dos Santos credits MDC and her mentor, newspaper advisor Manolo Barco, with effectively helping her navigate the college system, finding her leadership style, opening up to new opportunities, and developing her personality. The 4.0 GPA graduate will continue her journey in the communications field and her goal is to become a public relations professional working for a major corporation or firm.

Biology major Lucwilerna Raymond came to the U.S. from Gonaïves, Haiti with her family four years ago. She is the middle child in a family of seven. Together they faced the struggles of starting a new life and stayed on track grounded in a strong belief that education is key to success. Now her brothers are all in school, from middle school to college, and her parents are also pursuing degrees at MDC simultaneously. At MDC, Raymond divided her time between schoolwork, volunteer activities and student organizations, including Phi Theta Kappa (PTK), Doctors Without Borders, Student Government Association, The Chemistry Club, and TRIO Student Support Services, to name a few. Her hard work has been recognized with several scholarships, such as Leaders of Promise, conferred by PTK and other grants provided by MDC. She plans to attend the University of Miami in pursuit of her dream to become a pediatrician and open health clinics to serve low-income individuals and families.


Chemistry major Patricia Ruiz, 19, first enrolled at MDC just to complete some basic college courses, but soon discovered she was at the absolute best place to earn a degree with a curriculum that far exceeded her expectations and a community of educators, peers, and advisors who took a personal interest in her progress and future goals. Born in Morelia, Mexico, Ruiz grew up in a single-parent home. At MDC, she excelled academically as part of the Honors College, worked as a student assistant in the STEM department and founded MDC’s first thrift center at the Padron Campus, a free store for students.  She graduates with a 3.9 GPA and a goal to pursue a master’s degree in pharmaceutical and cosmetic science, hoping to one day open her own business and develop a line of environmentally friendly products.

Biology major Amalia Abraham Martin arrived in the U.S. from Cuba five years ago with a dream of becoming a computer engineer, like her father. But in 2018, while in the hospital caring for her mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer, she fell in love with the medical profession. At MDC, she served as vice president of the Beta Beta Beta Biological Honor Society and was website designer for the campus’ award-winning literary magazine Urbana.  In her free time, she helped raise funds for the cancer nonprofit Sebastian Strong.  Last year her outstanding academic achievement and demonstrated leadership potential earned her inclusion in the selected group of MDC students named 2020 Coca-Cola Leaders of Promise Scholars. Most recently, she was awarded a Barry Goldwater Scholarship, the most prestigious endowment for undergraduates pursuing research careers in natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering in the country. She plans to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Princeton, or Johns Hopkins University to pursue a career as a doctor and researcher specializing in oncology.


When he was one, information systems technology major Thomas Bezombe left his native Argentina with his mother in search of a better future in America. Like many undocumented students, Bezombe, now 19 years old, achieved his college dream thanks to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which has allowed him to study and work in the United States. He has fully leveraged this opportunity excelling academically and earning many accolades, including The National Scholarship Award, conferred by TheDream.US, and recently, he was one of 15 MDC students included in the 2021 All-Florida Academic Team by Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society, of which he was vice president. Bezombe is graduating with a bachelor’s degree and currently works part-time at MDC. His goal is to work as a network technician for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Nursing major Mily Vargas has faced many adversities. She lost her father at a young age and her mother had to raise five children on her own, working against food insecurity and financial hardship. Vargas then married and found herself in an abusive relationship. But she didn’t give up. Strengthened by adversity, she set out to take control of her life and make the best of it. That is how she arrived at MDC, sure that she was at the right place to make it happen. She found a community that felt like home and the support of mentors who encouraged her and presented her with great opportunities. Vargas blossomed in every aspect, getting involved in multiple boards and committees across MDC. She was also the recipient of the MDC FAITH scholarship, vice president of the Student Government Association, was a Newman Fellow finalist, and qualified for the President’s Volunteer Service Award. After graduation, the 20-year-old will continue her education to one day become a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit nurse.


Political science major Diana Montalvo attributes her academic success to the skills acquired at MDC’s Honors College. The 19-year-old Miami native had a tremendous run at MDC, earning the respect of her peers who selected her President of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society for the 2020-21 academic year. In that role, she made it a priority that every chapter, officer and member was fully engaged in activities to assist the community during the difficult period of the pandemic. She draws inspiration and courage for everything she does from Diego, her older brother who is autistic. Seeing him endure difficult situations, such as hospitalizations while maintaining a positive outlook, always fills her with optimism and the belief that she can conquer anything. She is one of a handful of MDC students selected as finalists for the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, which supports exceptionally talented community college students seeking to complete their bachelor’s degrees. Montalvo’s goal is to become a malpractice attorney and later open her own law firm.

Nicolas Arce, a sociology major, aspires to one day work full-time as a community activist. He’s already built a solid foundation. Arce is a Civics305 Fellow with Engage Miami and during his tenure at MDC supported several organizations and causes, such as Save LGBT and Love the Everglades Movement. He also served as vice president of the YES! Club, Student Government Association, and was a mentor for the WIT (Whatever It Takes) program. Most recently, as the District 6 representative for the Transit Alliance Miami Riders Council, his Better Bus Project, a music video about adopting designated bus lanes across Miami-Dade County, caught the attention of Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, who committed to building the bus lanes by the end of the year. His dedication to public service and civic leadership earned him a scholarship from Point Foundation, a national LGBTQ+ scholarship fund, and a spot among 14 MDC finalists for the Newman Civic Fellow Award. Arce, who arrived at MDC with “subpar academic grades,” ends his journey on a high note as an Honors College student with a 4.0 GPA.