May 04, 2021
By Elsa Wenzel
Rollins’ seven valedictorians reminisce about favorite memories, share secrets to success, reveal aspirations, and look forward to what’s next.
When the class of 2021 dons their caps and gowns on Saturday, May 8, seven highly deserving graduates with 4.0 GPAs will be leading the way. This year’s valedictorians have triumphed over unprecedented challenges, some spending their senior year masked up and socially distanced on campus and others studying remotely from scattered home bases across the country.
Whether pursuing careers in sports, business, or sustainable enterprise, these standout students have demonstrated an uncommon commitment to academic excellence, leadership, and civic service throughout their time at Rollins. Among them are social innovators, interfaith storytellers, investment analysts, clinical psychologists, and aspiring presidents of the United States.
From leading socially responsible business efforts to discovering a passion for human rights, each of the valedictorians charted their own unique path to success at Rollins. Now they step into the real world as global citizens and responsible leaders ready to make their marks.
Maria Cedeno ’21
- Major: International Business
- Hometown: Winter Park, Florida
Attending an International Baccalaureate program since middle school braced Maria Cedeno ’21 for the rigors at Rollins. Graduating in just three years, the aspiring CPA has already landed a role with a business consulting firm. Cedeno paired her international business major with a minor in Latin American and Caribbean studies, feeding her fascination with the region’s legacy of colonialism and its contemporary pop culture. She is especially proud that her parents, who emigrated from Ecuador, get to see her graduate as a valedictorian from her top college choice—a vindication of her family’s hard work and sacrifices and also an example that she hopes will encourage other Latino students to attend Rollins.
My mentor and how they make a difference “[Former Rollins entrepreneur-in-residence] Allen Kupetz and my current advisor, business professor Richard Lewin, have been my mentors. Dr. Lewin has given me insight into possible connections and opportunities that I can pursue for accounting and has helped guide me through my career at Rollins while also trying to set me up for the best possible career after Rollins. It’s a small community. Your professors know you—you’re not sitting in a lecture hall of 500 people. All the faculty are there to help you succeed.”
An experience I’ll never forget “The first day of first-year orientation we had to meet on Mills Lawn with our Rollins College Conference classes. Mine was World of Business. Gaby Davenport ’21 and I immediately gravitated toward each other and quickly became friends. I went on to meet more of my best friends through Gaby. That moment of finding my place so early on really set the tone for the rest of my Rollins career.”
What’s next? “I’ll be working as a client services manager at Knoza Consulting, a local firm founded by Adam Schwartz ’10 ’12MBA that focuses on Amazon optimization. It was thanks to my Rollins connection with COO Allen Kupetz that I found out about the position. Ultimately, I want to become an accountant for one of the big four accounting firms, and I’d love to start a scholarship fund so I can continue giving back to the community.”
Gabrielle Davenport ’21
- Major: Economics
- Hometown: Orlando, Florida
Gaby Davenport ’21 is ready to take on the world, righting as many wrongs as she can along the way. Whether it’s addressing failings in a capitalist society, the American justice system, or the lack of spending on maternity and paternity care, she wants to use her economics degree and the skills she learned at Rollins to make people’s lives better. Davenport likes the idea of joining the executive ranks at a big tech corporation to make key changes from within the system or perhaps working in law, navigating her way to making bold changes to a system she feels has left too many people behind.
My mentor and how they make a difference “Economics professors Phil Kozel and Benjamin Balak have taught me a lot about heterodox schools of economics and how not to get absorbed by them. It’s very interesting to get that perspective of not being against the system just to be against the system, but because it’s a really corrupt, messed-up system. They've taught me a lot, encouraging me to go out into the world, work to reform the care and justice systems, and fight for what I believe in.”
An experience I’ll never forget “The first time my little squad of friends went to Disney World, as cheesy as it sounds, I had a moment where we were in line, laughing, and I realized that these are the friendships I’ve always wanted. Time and time again, they’ve surprised me in their selflessness and in how much they care about me. I'm super thankful to Rollins for finding these people who will stay with me forever.”
What’s next? “I’ll be working in the leveraged finance group at JPMorgan Chase, where I also worked as an intern. The people are really great and down to earth. In a few years, I'd like to transfer to corporate development at a big tech firm, then become CEO, and then run for office. I would love to be president of the United States.”
Nickie Dunn ’21
- Major: Psychology
- Hometown: Oviedo, Florida
Nickie Dunn ’21 believes that with education and knowledge come power and privilege. She credits her Rollins education with opening her eyes to social inequities, which she plans to address as a clinical psychologist. From student-faculty research exploring Muslims in the West to serving as the only student on the psychology department’s suicide prevention advisory board, Dunn is uniquely positioned to tackle issues at the intersection of politics, psychology, and mental health. She is delivering the valedictorian speech at commencement about how Tars can tap into the togetherness sparked by the COVID-19 crisis to tackle big issues, including systemic racism and climate change.
My mentor and how they make a difference “Psychology professor Andrew Luchner was my advisor for my honors thesis. We did research together, he was the one who connected me with the research assistant position, and he’s really given me some great opportunities. He is also a clinical psychologist, so it’s been really amazing to work with someone in the field I want to pursue. He’s been a great resource and support.”
How Rollins prepared me for a meaningful life and productive career “I’ve learned a lot about social justice, racial justice, and marginalized groups. I took a [Rollins Foundation in the Liberal Arts] course called Racial Fictions that really opened my eyes to how being a white woman affects me moving through the world and how I play into systems of power that affect others. Rollins has taught me that I want to be a good ally. I want to use the knowledge I’ve gained to work toward racial and social justice, creating more equitable communities.”
An experience I’ll never forget “I did an alternative spring break through the Immersion program. We went to Moab, Utah, to the Arches National Park to do environmental service with a community partner called Plateau Restoration. They taught us a lot about the environment in the lab, and we did a lot of cleanup work, including removing invasive species and doing new plantings. It was such an awesome community building experience, and it was the first time I saw snow!”
What’s next? “I’m taking a gap year and driving cross-country to Oregon with one of my close friends. We're going to see a lot of national parks. After that, I hope to pursue an advanced degree in psychology. Taking International Human Rights with [political science professor] Dan Chong really made me want to do something with human rights—maybe provide therapy to refugees or some sort of vulnerable group. There are so many people who need therapy and support and don’t have access.”
Kinsley Gerks ’20
- Majors: Social Innovation and Studio Art
- Hometown: Jupiter, Florida
Attracted by the College’s reputation for educating changemakers, Kinsley Gerks ’20 transferred to Rollins from Palm Beach State College. She quickly took on a leadership role at the Social Impact Hub, where she recently launched the Impact Incubator for students interested in building social enterprises. Rollins’ first social innovation graduate, Gerks co-founded BatterEASE, a lithium-battery-refurbishment venture that went on to the London finals of the prestigious Hult Prize for college startups. A creative problem-solver who believes in the power of personal expression, she aspires to lead social change with a focus on animal rights.
How Rollins prepared me for a meaningful life and productive career “Having the opportunity to major in social innovation was fantastic because the interdisciplinary approach was beneficial for my educational style and led to so many hands-on learning experiences. Having those opportunities for pitching and receiving seed funding really helped launch my entrepreneurial journey, which helped me build meaningful connections.”
My mentor and how they make a difference “Melissa Nelson, now the staff director of the Social Impact Hub, played a pivotal role in my Rollins journey. Everybody calls her the Hub’s ‘mom.’ She gave me opportunities to improve and practice my leadership skills. She’s really somebody who leads by example and gave me room to grow and be creative.”
An experience I’ll never forget “As the student lead for creating the Impact Incubator, we had undergraduate teams, teams that competed from the Crummer Graduate School of Business, and teams from outside organizations. Some were focused on sustainable fashion, some on environmental causes and creating marketplaces for environmentally conscious and sustainable companies. It was really fun for me to be a mentor for them and watch them grow over the semester.”
What I’ll miss most about Rollins “I’ll miss being on campus, which always felt comfortable and like home. I’ll also really miss the Social Impact Hub, which I was involved in since my first week at Rollins. I loved being around people with similar passions who were really curious about similar things. We built a community together, and hopefully that’s something I can find again.”
What’s next? “I want to focus my career on farm-animal protection related to ending mass consumption of animals, especially looking at the environmental problems associated with factory farming. Combining that with the visual arts—maybe in marketing or graphic design—seems like one of the biggest ways to win over other hearts and minds.”
Garrett Leonard ’20
- Major: Business Management
- Hometown: Fort Mill, South Carolina
Garrett Leonard ’20 is parlaying his time on the baseball diamond into a one-in-a-million dream of playing professional baseball. A baseball scholarship brought the pitcher to the College, where he landed on the Rollins Athletic Director’s Honor Roll and Sunshine State Conference Commissioner’s Honor Roll multiple times and has honed skills in communication and leadership both on and off the field. Just after being named First Team Google Cloud Academic All-America, Leonard was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 15th round of the Major League Baseball draft. Following spring training, he’ll start pitching for the Greensboro Grasshoppers.
My mentor and how they make a difference “[Business professor] Raghabendra KC was really passionate and tried to push us. Part of his Entrepreneurial Marketing class included an elevator-pitch competition, and my partner and I had an app idea for production on Netflix shows to sell them and get targeted clothing items to match customers’ preferences. Also, both of my baseball coaches, John Sjogren and Patrick Szczerba, were always there encouraging me and helping me achieve my goals.”
An experience I’ll never forget “Getting to play baseball every year with great friends. Sophomore year I had a no-hitter, so I got a Tommy Award [which honors the best moments of a sports season at Rollins]. That was probably the coolest game for me personally.”
What I’ll miss most about Rollins “Being at Rollins was a great experience, and it was nice being in a small learning environment. I was able to talk to my professors and coaches about anything, and they were there if I needed help. They were always willing to go the extra mile.”
What’s next? “I just finished spring training and am on my way to play baseball with the Greensboro Grasshoppers in North Carolina. I was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates, so I’m working my way up to the top. I’m going to keep working on my curveball and improving my delivery. My goal is to make it all the way to the majors and play as long as I can. Eventually, I could see combining my business management major with my love of baseball—maybe starting my own business along those lines.”
Skylar Miller ’21
- Major: Economics
- Hometown: Winter Park, Florida
Admittedly, Skylar Miller ’21 has a strong work ethic and desire to achieve; if it’s not an A, she’s not satisfied. Attending Rollins remotely this past year forced her to reach ever-higher levels of discipline and focus, landing a prestigious internship in corporate payments and banking at JPMorgan Chase prior to her senior year that has turned into a full-time offer as an incoming analyst. Having studied economics and business through the liberal arts lens at Rollins, Miller isn’t just passionate about high finance alone, but also for its potential to make a difference in society, especially in the Fintech space.
How Rollins prepared me for a meaningful life and productive career “Rollins makes you a well-rounded person by exposing you to different worldviews and different perspectives on issues. I think that can help us make the world a better place. We can analyze things from varying viewpoints and come up with better solutions.”
My mentor and how they make a difference “Academically, the professor who helped me the most is economics professor Phil Kozel. He’s been an amazing advisor. Every time I needed anything he was always there. He is phenomenal—so willing to help and so encouraging.”
What I’ll miss most about Rollins “I joined the Delta Zeta sorority to make friends, especially since I was a transfer student from the University of Miami. Now I have these strong local ties, and we’re all together and from different states. So it’s going to be weird, not being able to ask them to go to Barnie’s on a random day. I’ll definitely miss that.”
What’s next? “I’ll be working in wholesale payments and corporate banking at JPMorgan Chase. It’s a rotational program for two years, and every six months, I will be switching positions. It’s basically Treasury services, helping Fortune 500 companies manage their money, assisting them with their payments landscape, and making innovations. After that, I want to go to law school and specialize in bankruptcy, entertainment, or intellectual property.”
Allison van Tilborgh ’21
- Majors: Religious Studies and Communication Studies
- Hometown: Lake Mary, Florida
Allison van Tilborgh ’21 had planned to study business, but an introductory course in Jewish studies redirected her path, revealing a long-buried family history and ultimately shaping her double major in religious studies and communication. Van Tilborgh has already melded the two fields, building bridges by co-founding an interfaith dialogue group on campus and reaching a growing international audience with Interfaith Now, a digital publication she launched to attract readers and authors from all walks of life. Her final independent study explored how social justice is informed by spirituality, centering on Jewish radical feminism and the civil rights movement.
My mentor and how they make a difference “I was going to be a business major and thought it was for a practical career. Then I took Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) with [religious studies professor] Yudit Greenberg, and everything about my life changed. I got to see a side of religion I’d never been exposed to, and I fell in love with it.”
How Rollins prepared me for a meaningful life and productive career “Rollins has made me reflect on a meaningful life and productive career not as opposing things, but as spectrums that should lay on top of one another. As for a productive career, for me it’s developing critical-thinking skills, speaking and writing skills, organizational skills, conflict management, and persuasion. Rollins has helped give me the tools to make my life meaningful in any given moment. The world that I lived in was very black and white before, and now it's full of shades of gray.”
An experience I’ll never forget “After taking that first religion class, I discovered that I was ethnically Jewish. I broached the subject with my grandmother, my Oma, who’s Dutch. She told me how my great-grandfather just narrowly survived the Holocaust and that a lot of our family died. This opened up my life and the way that I understood my identity, my religious identity, my ethnic identity because it got me interested in interfaith work. I also got the opportunity to be a defender of memory for those who died in the Holocaust and those who survived it. Learning about the Holocaust is super difficult, but it’s not just an academic pursuit. It’s defending the memory of my family.”
What’s next? “I’m the digital media director at Four Rivers Media, a faith-based media and lifestyle marketing company. I’ve helped set up new substructures in the business, such as social media, podcast development, and email broadcasts, and I help train people to lead in those areas. I couldn’t have done that without the communication curriculum at Rollins. One day, I’d like to get a master’s in theological studies. I’m open to exercising my skills in ways that may not even exist yet.”
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