University of South Florida


USF conferred more than 4,400 degrees during fall commencement

By Daphne Kotschessa Almodovar and Kevin Watler, University Communications and Marketing

The University of South Florida awarded more than 4,400 degrees during fall commencement. The ceremonies included recipients of 3,303 bachelor’s, 982 master’s, 140 doctoral and three specialist degrees.

The group featured 43 undergraduate students earning a perfect 4.0 GPA and 136 student veterans, and included graduates from 37 states, 88 nations and four U.S. territories. Nearly half of the fall undergraduates (1,520) were recipients of Pell Grants, reflecting USF’s impact on social mobility. Pell is a federal financial aid program for students from modest socioeconomic backgrounds.

At 18 years old, the youngest graduate earned a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences. The oldest graduate, who is 72 years old, received a bachelor’s degree in history.

Brian Murphy

ReliaQuest Founder and CEO Brian Murphy received the President’s Fellow Medallion, an award given to very distinguished and highly meritorious individuals.  In 2018, USF and ReliaQuest, a global cybersecurity company, partnered to form the ReliaQuest Labs, a unique six-week program designed to give students hands-on experiences and help fill the immense talent gap in the cybersecurity industry. Since its inception, more than 350 students have completed the program and over 100 of them have been hired by ReliaQuest.

USF President Rhea Law presided over all ceremonies, which were held in the Yuengling Center on the Tampa campus.

Boundless Bulls

JJ Cruz

Jonathan James Aguada Cruz, Bachelor of Science in cybersecurity

Jonathan James “JJ” Aguada Cruz is a proud first-generation student who feels the magnitude of this accomplishment across his family of five siblings. 

He comes from a long line of military personnel, including grandfathers on both sides of the family who served in the Navy. Born in Washington state to parents from Guam and the Philippines, Cruz himself served in the Army and deployed to Iraq. After his tour, Cruz decided to pursue higher education. He completed his associate degree from Pasco-Hernando State College, then transferred to USF to pursue his bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity. 

“I immediately connected with the USF Office of Veteran Success for help navigating the VA education benefit. They understand our unique needs and provide a place to belong,” Cruz said. 

At USF, he found a way of combining love of his country with his passion for computing.

JJ Cruz

“I’ve always wanted to serve my country and now, with new skills in cybersecurity, I can serve in a hands-on way after I graduate,” he said. “I enjoy exploring how network infrastructure, coding and even the way hacking play a role in advancing technology systems.”

Cruz admits college seemed intimidating at first, but his military training meant Cruz knew he needed to engage with his peers and connect with leadership. In his time at USF, Cruz has created a peer-to-peer study group, interned with SOFWERX through a partnership with the Institute of Applied Engineering and joined the USF chapter of SALUTE, a National Honor Society for veteran college students. 

Upon graduation, Cruz plans to enjoy more time with his wife, Pichamon, and obtain his CompTIA Security+ Certification.

Sarah and Jessica Starr

Sarah Starr, Bachelor of Science in health sciences

Jessica Starr, Bachelor of Science in civil engineering

Amid a generational difference and opposite fields of study, Sarah and Jessica may not be able to share study notes, but they do share a special bond. The mother and daughter often met at the USF Tampa campus for lunch over the years as they each chipped away at their degrees. Mom, Sarah, pursued health sciences, while her daughter, Jessica, followed in her father’s footsteps to become an engineer. “It was back in January when we realized we would be graduating at the same time. It was a complete coincidence,” Jessica said. 

The Starrs are originally from England and moved to Florida in 2002 after their husband and father, Paul, took a new job. Sarah dedicated her time to raising the family in a new country, setting aside her dreams of a college education. But her hopes were never far behind.

“It was a long process to go back to school. Marriage, kids, work, lots of reasons. But then I realized, the only way to get out of this cyclic thought about my dreams is to just do it,” Sarah said.

After completing her first semester at a community college in 2018, Sarah was diagnosed with breast cancer. The health struggles may have slowed her down, but they did not stop her. Instead, they led the way to her career path. 

“I did take a semester off. But the staff at the cancer center and my family helped me tremendously with support and getting my health back again. Then I continued with new vigor,” Sarah said. 

Sarah and Jessica Starr

Biology was always her best subject and working as a cardiac monitor technician meant health care was front of mind. She was recently promoted to telemetry supervisor at AdventHealth in Tampa and plans to pursue further opportunities in cancer research.

Meanwhile, her daughter, Jessica, credits her mother’s strength and determination for inspiring her journey in higher education. She was 6 years old when the family arrived in the U.S. She later obtained her associate degree from Hillsborough Community College and then transferred to USF to major in American Sign Language interpreting. But after taking some math classes, she decided to change paths. 

Jessica realized she was more like her parents than she thought, and that engineering, her dad’s profession, suited her. She got a job while completing her degree, and then witnessed her mother push through her cancer battle.  

“Her journey didn’t end but rather it got her right back on track. Nothing can stop her, and nothing can stop me either,” Jessica said. 

Both Starrs often met at the Marshall Student Center to chat about classes, appreciating university life together on campus. While the projects differed, they supported each other with tenacity through the demands of their programs. 

“Venting to my mom on campus was cool because she truly understood. And I’ve enjoyed the classes and getting to know my peers. Knowing we could work together is exciting,” she said.

Jessica interned last summer with the Tampa engineering firm Kisinger Campo & Associates, then worked part-time with the firm as she completed her degree. She values the company’s same commitment to family as her own and will join it full-time as a roadway design engineer upon graduation. Mother and daughter continue to make memories as they plan Jessica’s wedding in February.

Catalina Rubiano, Master of Science in marine science

catalina seatrac

Catalina Rubiano was looking for a strong graduate program in marine science when she found community at the USF St. Petersburg campus. She is part of the first cohort to graduate from the College of Marine Science with the new hydrography (seafloor mapping) concentration, designed to develop skills for a career outside of academia.

“We jumped in right way aboard the Research Vessel Hogarth with the goal of mapping the seafloor in the Big Bend area near the Florida Middle Grounds,” she said, referring to a unique area that boasts an ecosystem of sand and limestone pinnacles, ledges, springs and other structures in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico. “Exploring the reefs and important habitats and just getting into this program were an indicator I was living my dream.”

Born and raised in New Orleans, Rubiano is a dual citizen of Colombia, where her father is from, and she tries to visit on a yearly basis. She also played professional soccer with the Colombian women’s national football team there before returning to the states for a career on the water. 

Her initial college experience included playing soccer and studying sociology at Louisiana State University. She decided to put down her cleats and set a new career goal – go back to school to get her bachelor’s degree in Earth and environmental science from the University of New Orleans. While there she heard about the innovative graduate program at USF. 

Just as she did on the field, Rubiano went all into marine science – receiving the National Science Foundation Bridge to the Doctorate Endowed Graduate Fellowship, along with a fellowship through the USF College of Marine Science.


“The Center for Ocean Mapping and Innovative Technologies at USF opened all these incredible doors for me. They gave me the skillset that allowed me to pursue things on my bucket list – sailing on ships that are literally just exploring the oceans. It’s been a dream come true,” Rubiano said.

Her favorite project while at USF has been collaborating with SeaTrac to develop high-resolution maps of the sea floor around Tampa Bay using an uncrewed vessel. This mapping helps create predictive storm surge models that are more accurate than ever before. 

Rubiano will remain close to St. Petersburg and USF upon graduation. She interned over the summer at Saildrone, which shares space with the USF-based Florida Flood Hub for Applied Research and Innovation. She recently accepted a full-time position there as a hydrographic surveyor.

Scott Chmura, Master of Arts in teaching in secondary English education


Scott Chmura gets more nervous in front of his students than he ever did as a touring musician or Army sergeant.

“It’s like trying to keep an airplane that’s on fire in the air,” said the first-year middle school civics teacher.

Chmura credits his professors at USF, staff in the Office of Veteran Success and his hometown community of Inverness for supporting him through every lesson plan, parent-teacher conference and cornerstone project as he completes his master’s degree in education. 

“It is so good coming home to give back. My old teachers are now my colleagues and I get to teach my friends’ kids,” he said.

Chmura, who holds a bachelor’s degree in criminology from USF, has traveled the world entertaining thousands as a professional drummer and he is currently a drummer in the Florida National Guard 13th Army Band. He has worn many hats, including as a plumber and police officer, but it was his experience as a substitute teacher that revealed his true passion.


“My mom saw that I was naturally good at it, and I enjoyed it. It’s like a performance. I can critique myself to figure out what I can do better. I love the job. Every day I wake up and I’m ready to go.” 

The resources provided by the military and USF staff helped Chmura navigate graduate school and set the tone for his classroom. He recently accepted a full-time position teaching civics at Crystal River Middle School and plans to continue touring with his band during summer and holiday breaks. 

Elisha Brumant, Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering


The unique relationship between USF and the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) in St. Thomas allowed Elisha Brumant to continue his studies in Tampa. He started at USF in 2020 and will now dually graduate with his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from USF, as well as his bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics and associate of science degree in physics from UVI.

“It’s been a blessing personally and professionally. The relationships have opened so many doors. Students and professors come together for projects and then reunite for barbecues where we share opportunities. They’re family now with the connections we’ve made,” Brumant said.

Brumant credits those relationships he’s cultivated for paving the way to a year-long internship at Tampa Electric, where his responsibilities range from analyzing power imbalances, such as outage events, to helping determine whether to update fuse protection schemes and add/replace new devices for residential customers to ensure consistent power output. 

As an islander growing up in the Caribbean, Brumant knows all too well the disruption that power outages can cause, not just during and after a storm, but even to daily life. As a child he said it was commonplace to come home from school to an outage. As an adult, he isn’t so willing to accept this as normal. 

“I’ve been looking at different ways to better the situation, whether it’s solar or hydropower. Studying at USF and interning at TECO have been instrumental in helping me look for an answer that will ultimately benefit my people,” he said.


It was in the darkness during the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria and Irma that Brumant resolved to do something about power quality. An electronics class in his senior year of high school became the catalyst to pursue a career in electrical engineering. While at USF, Brumant joined the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Computer Society student branch chapter and obtained professional membership to the IEEE national standards organization, which is required to work as an electrical engineer.

His greatest challenge at USF was when he had to temporarily switch to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially since he tends to thrive in face-to-face interactions.

Brumant shared his advice for future engineering students who come from a faraway place. “It’s a different environment, so reach out to those who came before you to figure out what you could do next, get some perspective on how to better prepare yourself so you don’t make the same mistakes they did.”

Brumant has received several job offers that he’s still considering and prefers to stay in Tampa. He eventually plans to take his expertise back to the Virgin Islands to improve the power grid. 

Katelyn MacKay, Bachelor of Arts in psychology


Driven by the abundance of opportunities offered at an Association of American Universities member institution, New York native Katelyn MacKay transferred to USF after completing her freshman year at Hunter College. She spent a year and a half at the Sarasota-Manatee campus, focused on studying psychology and immersing herself in campus life.

She served as vice president of the Psychology Club, a member of the Student Veteran’s Association, and president of the Tau Sigma Transfer Honors Society. 

Upon her arrival at USF, MacKay faced the challenge of expanding her social network. This changed when she was awarded the Ellsworth G. Simmons Scholarship for International Leadership, which allowed her to study abroad in Florence, Italy. 

“This program introduced me to incredible people, some of whom I continue to spend time with even after returning home. I am immensely grateful for the faculty’s support in making this trip possible, and I would encourage every undergraduate to consider studying abroad,” she said.

Drawing from her own experiences as a new student, MacKay defined her goals as a peer leader and plans to further contribute to the USF community. She has been accepted into the Master of Social Work program and aspires to become a registered play therapist.

Nina Kamath, Bachelor of Science in information technology

Nina Kamath has always loved math and computers. She started programming in high school and scored the highest math grades in her class. Kamath’s father picked up on her talent and encouraged her to follow in his footsteps as a computer engineer. After completing her associate degree from Pasco-Hernando State College, Kamath transferred to USF to earn a bachelor’s degree in information technology. It was the sprawling Tampa campus and opportunities to connect with others that have helped Kamath grow the most. “I like to meet with friends and work in groups,” she said.



Nina with parents


Finding connection did not come as easily to her as computing. As a student with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder, Kamath faced some challenges in her academic and social lives. She sometimes felt overwhelmed by the course load and the coronavirus pandemic and had trouble concentrating.

Thankfully, Kamath had a strong support system that helped her overcome these obstacles. Her parents, Vikram and Usha, helped Kamath find available resources and accommodations through the USF Office of Student Accessibility Services, where she was provided extended testing time on exams. Sometimes, she took fewer classes to avoid stress. 

“Coping with the curriculum was not easy, but for her needs, she got to the finish line. Not many do that who are on the spectrum, and we made it.” Usha said.

Her parents credit the university for expanding Kamath’s horizons and exposing her to new opportunities. “Nothing is impossible if you keep trying. It’s a collaborative effort for everyone -- parents and the college -- to see what is best for the student. We are grateful for the support. And to other parents, don’t give up,” Vikram said.

One of her favorite courses was Introduction to Database Systems, where Kamath learned how to create and manage databases. She is graduating with a 3.94 grade point average and a bright future ahead. Kamath is now honing her interview skills and portfolio in preparation for securing a position that allows her to excel in programming. 

Alisha Kurian, Bachelor of Science in integrated public relations and advertising


She took naps in the stands as a toddler and grew up with Bull pride thanks to her dad, Sanjay, who graduated from USF in 1996 with a degree in math. It’s no wonder that when it came time for Kurian to go to college, the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship recipient chose the family alma mater. 

“I came to my first USF football game when I was 3 in 2005. We rooted for all the sports, basketball too. I loved it and Tampa was the best mix of being just close enough and far enough from home,” Kurian said.

From her hometown in Fort Myers, Kurian’s family members were her biggest fans as she explored career avenues. They were also her greatest supporters as she experienced the challenges of mental illness, including a hospitalization for bipolar disorder. 


“It was really hard to bounce back from that. I wasn’t aware of how sick I was, and I struggled to keep my grades up. I had a medical withdrawal, and I am not ashamed because as an Indian American woman I think it speaks more to how far I’ve come, to be graduating early, and to now being part of the Judy Genshaft Honors College,” she said.

After a brief hospital stay, Kurian spent the summer at home then returned to USF her sophomore year, soaring to new heights with adjustments to her lifestyle.

“I was so grateful to have professors who were so accommodating to my situation. I owe a lot of my success to them for keeping me on track,” she added. 

Kurian took time to reflect on her career path and pursued personal interests that brought her joy – always making time for USF athletic events and posting about them on social media. 

She joined the Consult-A-Bull student-run marketing agency at USF as their senior social media manager and did the same for the Student Alumni Association. 

As the superfan’s social media following grew, USF took notice, inviting her to collaborate on a successful Instagram takeover for a home football game. “My family couldn’t believe it. I had already been supporting our athletics programs since I was young, so it was only natural,” Kurian said. 

Still surprised that followers read her posts, but happy to make an impact on the community, Kurian now gets recognized as a celebrity of sorts at college games. She spent eight weeks last summer with the Target Corp. as an executive management intern and the company was impressed by the 21 year old. Upon graduation, Kurian will join Target as a specialty sales executive team leader in Boston. 

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