By Georgia Jackson, University Communications and Marketing
As the University of South Florida prepares to award more than 2,400 degrees during summer commencement Saturday, Aug. 5, two outstanding summer graduates from the Sarasota-Manatee campus share their favorite moments and insights from their time at USF.
When Jessica Rice dropped out of the nursing program at State College of Florida at 22 to take care of her newborn son Bentley, she worried she might never achieve her dreams of becoming a pediatrician.
“It was scary. I felt a little stagnant and like I was behind compared to people my age,” said Rice, who worked as a nursing assistant at Sarasota Memorial Hospital to support herself and her son. “I think, in the long run, it really benefitted my son.”
Two years later — and just two months after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a public health emergency — Rice was ready to enroll as a biology major at the University of South Florida to provide a better life for her son and pursue the goal she set for herself as a young girl.
“I spent a lot of time in and out of hospitals,” said Rice, who was diagnosed with scoliosis at 14 and who grew up watching her mother work at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. “I’ve had really, really awesome healthcare providers, but I've also had some really, really not great healthcare providers. I know it’s cliché, but I want to be the difference.”
As a nursing assistant at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, Rice spent much of the pandemic in hospitals, too, caring for patients infected by the virus. The experience was traumatizing, according to Rice, who had to go weeks without seeing her son due to his high-risk status. Rather than turning her off of her goal, Rice’s experience during the pandemic reassured her that she was right where she needed to be.
“It was mentally and emotionally taxing, but at no point did I think, ‘Why am I here?’ or ‘What am I doing with my life?’”
At USF, Rice busied herself with pre-med coursework, enrolling in classes like Disease Ecology and Toxicology. In her second year, she received a prestigious invitation to apply to the Omicron Delta Kappa honor society, which recognizes achievement in scholarship and other areas.
“Being a single mom for the majority of my son’s life, it meant a lot to me to be recognized,” said Rice, who now works at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and co-parents her son and step-daughter with her fiancé. “I worked really hard! It made me feel proud of myself.”
A Selby Achiever, Rice also received the Brunch on the Bay Scholarship and served as the vice president of Tau Sigma, a national honor society designed exclusively for transfer students at USF.
Rice plans to apply to the Morsani College of Medicine in the coming months to continue
pursuing her dream of becoming a pediatrician.
Dahlia Martinez-Singer has always been fascinated by the sciences — so much so that when she started taking classes at the University of South Florida in 2019, she had to remind herself not to let her fascination get the best of her.
“I definitely went all-in at one point,” said Martinez-Singer, who served as the president of the American Chemical Society, an on-campus laboratory technician, an orientation leader, a peer coach, the deputy supervisor of student government elections on the Sarasota-Manatee campus and an event coordinator for the Campus Activities Board. Martinez-Singer also assisted campus faculty with their research and partnered with a number of nonprofit organizations, including Girls Inc., Minorities in Shark Sciences, Unidos Now and SSTRIDE.
A biology major, Martinez-Singer came to USF thinking she knew what she would do with her degree upon graduation. That changed when she discovered her talent for building community relationships and securing partnerships on behalf of the university.
“After my experiences with outreach and community engagement, I found myself wanting to work in development, whether its funding for the sciences or something else.”
One of Martinez-Singer’s earliest outreach ventures included partnering with Girls, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing evidence-based programming to girls ages 5-18 in pro-girl environments across the United States and Canada.
“It was a blast,” said Martinez-Singer, who began delivering monthly chemistry lessons last summer and played a key role in bringing Girls Inc. to the Sarasota-Manatee campus for a summer camp. “Our goal was to create experiential learning opportunities, to make students feel like scientists, and to give them the opportunity to interact with real science equipment and learn about chemistry.”
As president of the American Chemical Society, Martinez-Singer brought similar programming to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Sarasota and DeSoto Counties, Minorities in Shark Sciences, and FUNducation. With Singer’s help, other members of the club racked up community service hours and practiced their public speaking skills while facilitating lessons that touched the lives of over 150 local K-12 students.
“We did a lot of fun ones,” Martinez-Singer said. “We made ice cream. We made crystals. My favorite lesson was one that showed the effects of acids and bases in the body during digestion.”
When USF Student Government awarded the Sarasota-Manatee campus chapter of the American Chemical Society a homecoming grant and the opportunity to host a homecoming event on the Sarasota-Manatee campus, Martinez-Singer taught the crowd of 70 attendees how to make green and gold boba tea — and the chemistry behind the process.
As Martinez-Singer prepares for graduation, she is immensely grateful to the members of the faculty and staff — like Victoria Ramirez, a laboratory manager on the Sarasota-Manatee campus who mentored Martinez-Singer during her time at USF — and is looking forward to her next adventure as a senior outreach specialist with the Florida Department of Transportation, where she will work under the supervision of fellow Sarasota-Manatee campus alumna Yaritza Vargas.
“The faculty and staff at the Sarasota-Manatee campus have such a strong love for what they do that they’re going to support you,” said Martinez-Singer. “I owe it all to them.”