TAMPA – The University of South Florida Muma College of Business kicked off the new school year by hitting a major milestone: over $1 million dollars in scholarships were awarded to business students for the 2023-2024 academic year.
The staggering amount was announced at the 2023 Scholarship Luncheon, an annual celebration and one of the college’s signature events.
“This is a phenomenal achievement, one that we should all be proud of,” said GJ de Vreede, interim dean of the USF Muma College of Business, after announcing the dollar-surpassing feat.
This year’s gathering, held on Friday at the Marshall Student Center ballroom, was a playful Seussian-inspired event filled with mountainous stage set pieces, whimsical balloon columns, and poetic cake pops reminiscent of the Dr. Seuss book, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”
About 300 business students from all three campuses received financial awards from over 110 different scholarship funds within the Muma College of Business. The luncheon’s sponsor, the USF Federal Credit Union, also gave out a $1,000 Southwest Airlines gift card to one lucky student.
The hour-long event was a chance for donors to meet the students who have benefitted from their generous gifts. It was also an opportunity for attendees to hear the inspirational personal stories of potential and perseverance from scholarship recipients.
A life of purpose
This year’s featured student speaker was Julio Figueroa, a senior majoring in business analytics and information systems in the School of Information Systems and Management.
The 33-year-old father of two shared his purpose-driven story of how he became a Special Operations Forces soldier in the U.S. Army.
Figueroa detailed his unexpected path of serving in the 3rd battalion of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Those specialized elite members, known as Night Stalkers, were lionized in movies like “Black Hawk Down” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”
“We flew into the most challenging environments, in some of the most remote regions in the world, on no-fail missions,” he said. “Our motto was ‘Night Stalkers Don’t Quit,’ and those four words have become part of my life-long narrative.”
“I’ve always searched for a life with purpose. Serving and fulfilling the duties of a Night Stalker meant a life of purpose to myself and to our nation.”
From bartender to Special Operations recruit
Figueroa was born in Puerto Rico. After graduating from high school in Ft. Myers,
college was not his first choice. Scholarships were hard to come by and he did not
want to go into debt, he said.
At 19, he decided to move to Key West to become a bartender.
That’s where Special Operations Forces soldiers would ride up to his bar on black Zodiac boats. They trained at a nearby combat dive training school and would talk about how thrilling their lives were.
“They talked about getting paid to learn survival skills, jump out of planes, and even freediving in open waters,” he said. “I decided to jump head first. In a matter of weeks, I went from bartender to Special Operations recruit.”
His time as a Night Stalker took him on multiple combat deployments and gave him a passport to travel the world with a front-row seat to history. Military missions took him to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guatemala.
As a Downed Aircraft Recovery Team Leader, Figueroa’s job was to be the radio transmitter operator at crash sites. He was responsible for relaying to command what was happening on the ground as his team cut up aircrafts or fixed them so they wouldn’t fall into enemy hands.
Seeing history unfold
After serving as a Night Stalker, he signed on to work at an aerospace defense contractor supporting the U.S. military. His new role turned to supporting the Special Operations Forces soldiers he once was a part of.
His rotations took him back to Afghanistan, Africa, and Iraq. He still had that front-row seat to history.
In Iraq, he was at an undisclosed location when 11 ballistic missiles rained down on them from Iran. The international news event was chronicled on a “60 Minutes” segment.
He also witnessed the close of America’s Longest War in Afghanistan and the collapse of the Afghan military in a matter of weeks.
“Seeing the fall of Afghanistan, a country where I started my career, came with a sense of sorrow and an understanding of the next chapter of my life,” he said.
As the war was winding down, he knew he was no longer needed overseas. It was time to come home to his family, he said.
Jump with purpose
In 2023, Figueroa enrolled at USF. He quickly looked for ways to give back to student veterans like himself.
He volunteers at the USF Office of Veteran Success where he helps other veterans transition from military to academic life. He also works at SOFWERX, where he does market research and create innovative technology serving the Special Operations Forces community.
Figueroa said he hopes sharing his story will inspire others to be more purpose-driven and to embrace their own journeys.
“I’m here to tell you, you’re never too old. You’re never too old to pivot. And you’re never too old to choose a new path,” he said.
“The most important thing is to jump. And when you jump with purpose, there is no telling where you will land.”