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Graduating STEM students reflect on how U.Va. has shaped them

Their paths to higher education were different, but these students all recognize the impact the University — and its people — has had on their lives

<p>Rivera and twins Aleyna and Alara Bedir — all graduating with engineering degrees — &nbsp;recognize how their STEM classes have grown them as students and people.</p>

Rivera and twins Aleyna and Alara Bedir — all graduating with engineering degrees —  recognize how their STEM classes have grown them as students and people.

For many graduating fourth years, the end of final exams and presence of national stay-at-home orders have created the perfect space for reflection on their time at the University. Five students — all graduating with STEM degrees — share their unique journeys to the diploma they will eventually receive on the Lawn. 

From engagement in nursing clinicals to engineering clubs to on-Grounds religious fellowships, these students all recognize that learning outside of the classroom has taught them just as much as learning inside of the classroom. 

For Nursing student Eleni Lazarides, who originally wanted to work in trauma or intensive care units, it was her clinical rotations that made her realize her true passion in nursing. 

“I got into my clinicals and realized that I was kind of overwhelmed by [trauma and ICU units] and much preferred being with kiddos and preferred my time in outpatient settings rather than the Trauma One units,” Lazarides said. “I was very surprised when I realized I loved my community clinical and loved spending time in schools, and the Battle building outpatient clinics. That’s when I realized that that’s what I wanted to do — the teaching side of nursing, patient counselling — the stuff that I thought I’d not be as interested in I realized is what I love about this field.” 

Her advice to first-year students encourages them to embark upon a similar journey of exploration — one where they explore many of the University’s opportunities and engage deeply with those they truly love.

“Don’t be afraid to try stuff out, don’t be too quick to say no to something and if you have an interest in something, get involved in some kind of group or take an elective,” Lazridies said. “But on the flip side, once you find what you love, find a few things you really care about and pour into those communities.”

According to Engingeering student Daniel Patel — who is graduating two years early as a second year — his time with the Reformed University Fellowship has matured him and made him a better person — largely due to the people he has met through it. Recognizing that people are what has made his University experience, his advice to incoming first years is to connect with one another.

“Seek out community because it helps to have a bunch of people you can spend time with,” Patel said. “Take school seriously, but it doesn’t have to be the main focus of everything because community is important.” 

For Alara and Aleyna Bedir — twin sisters and engineering students in systems and civil engineering, respectively — it was the discovery of this community that made the University their home. As they faced the uncharted waters that come with being first-generation immigrants and college students, the Center for Diversity in Engineering provided them with mentorship, friendship and academic support.

“Our first year, Aleyna and I roomed separately, but we gravitated toward each other a lot because we didn’t know where to turn when we had the pressures of engineering and all the imposter syndrome that comes from that,” Alara said. “We didn’t expect it to be that tough — I wish we had known about the Center for Diversity in Engineering, because now as upperclassmen, we’re really involved with the center and mentoring and we make sure people have those people to turn to.” 

Aleyna also credited the center with helping give her a voice. According to Aleyna, the rigors of engineering can make it difficult for first-generation students and immigrants who are experiencing college — and a new country — for the first time in their families.

“Being first-generation, all the goals we wanted to achieve were set 100 percent by us,” Aleyna said. “We didn’t have a lot to fall back on, but the Center for Diversity in Engineering has been amazing.”

Biomedical engineering student Alma Rivera found a similar community in the engineering school through the Society for Hispanic Engineers — an organization that promotes STEM throughout hispanic and LatinX communities.  

“When I first got to U.Va., it was a big culture shock,” Rivera said. “The food was different, the environment was different and at first I didn’t really feel like I belonged, but over time I was able to carve out a space for me and make it my own.”

Rivera also cited teaching a one-credit course called Race and Diversity in Engineering as a transformative experience for her — a time when she felt especially connected to the University community.

“It was a moment where I was in my element and I felt like I really belonged,” Rivera said.

But for Rivera — whose goal is to become a doctor in family medicine or public health — it was her childhood that sparked her passion for science and medicine in the first place. 

“Growing up, my family did not have good access to healthcare,” Rivera said. “There was this gap in my community and [that] really affected it, so I always wanted to contribute to the health of my community and lessen that gap, especially in terms of providing good healthcare to minorities.” 

However, Rivera recognized that if she had not come to the University, she might not have become the person she is today — or gained the skills she needed to pursue her passion for helping others.

“I don’t think I would have expanded my worldview as much [if I had not come to the University],” Rivera said. “At U.Va., I was constantly out of my comfort zone, and at some point, you become comfortable with the thought of being uncomfortable, and I think that will be really key for me going forward and handling all kinds of situations.”

Lazarides also felt that the University has shaped her in ways that could not have been achieved anywhere else.

“I would be an entirely different person [if I had not come to the University], Lazarides said. “[Reformed University Fellowship] was huge for me and my personality — I have opened up a lot and have learned how to be more vulnerable, and leaps and bounds I’ve grown in my relationship to God.”

According to Lazarides, the University also gave her a love of learning and the skills she needed to become an independent adult. 

“I can't imagine life not having gone to U.Va. — I just can’t,” Lazarides said.

Lazarides plans to take her nursing licensure examination within the coming months so that she can begin work as a nurse in the fall. Patel has applied to several graduate computer science programs, but hopes to begin the University’s masters in computer science program in the fall. Alara and Aleyna Bedir have both accepted engineering positions in northern Virginia and plan to room together as they begin their post-college lives. Rivera will be attending medical school at the University of Texas at Austin in June.