Dunya & Midia Shaalan

Dunya (left) and Midia (right) Shaalan are natives of Iraq. They became United States citizens in August.


Dunya and Midia Shaalan have come a long way since March 20, 2003, the night their lives changed forever. They were small children living in Baghdad, Iraq when the quiet, overnight hours were interrupted by the United States bombing their home city. “We hid in the bathroom for an entire day,” remembered Midia. “My brother was just one week old,” added Dunya. “Our whole family stayed in the bathroom. It was the only room in our house without a window.”

Two years later their family would move to Syria. In 2009 the Shaalan’s applied to come to the United States. In 2012, as civil war was breaking out in Syria, the Shaalan’s were granted permission to move to America. By that time, they were a family of seven. “It was very hard when we first arrived,” said Dunya. “We didn’t know anyone and we didn’t speak English. At first all we knew how to say was ‘yes,’ ‘no’ and ‘thank you.’”

Dunya (pronounced DOON-ya) had attended high school in Syria. Midia (pronounced MEE-dee-uh) was two years younger and would go to Syracuse’s Corcoran High School, graduating in 2015. That fall both sisters started taking classes at OCC. They quickly immersed themselves in the campus community, receiving assistance from the Educational Opportunity Program, the Collegiate Science Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program along with OnPoint for College. Both worked tirelessly and became outstanding students. Dunya was inducted into international honor society Phi Theta Kappa (PTK). Midia will be joining PTK this semester. “We are very proud of ourselves,” said Dunia. We have had to work so hard to improve ourselves and get where we are.”

High academic honors are just the beginning for the Shaalan’s. Last month they were sworn-in as American citizens. Next May, Midia will earn her degree in Architectural Technology. Dunya will complete work toward her Interior Design degree in December 2018. Both feel fortunate they came to college here. “OCC gives you a really good opportunity. I have really loved the experience,” said Midia. “Your life is like a building. OCC gives you a really good foundation so you will be prepared wherever you go next,” said Dunia.

Hassina Adams

Hassina Adams
Hassina Adams
  • High School: Greenlane College in Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Major at OCC: General Studies with an Honors minor

The life lessons Hassina Adams’ mother taught her while growing up in South Africa are with her every day. Her mother struggled to raise four children on her own. She didn’t have the financial means but more than made up for it with the wisdom she shared. “My mom raised me to have a target, have a goal, implement a plan which would allow me to reach that goal and execute it. That’s how I’ve lived my life. I don’t do Plan B’s. I only have Plan A’s and somehow it has always worked out.”

Adams’ mother passed away two years ago. A short time later she moved to the United States and enrolled at OCC where she’s been an outstanding student. Adams is a member of the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (known as C-STEP), president of the History Club and is the International Club student associate. She’ll be inducted into international honor society Phi Theta Kappa November 1.

Adams is also very active in her community. She works at a refugee center three nights a week as is the head teacher for a class of middle school-aged girls. She helps them with homework while focusing on subjects they are struggling in.

Adams will receive her associate degree in December 2017. She plans to transfer to a four-year college where she will double major in international relations and political science on her way to becoming a lawyer. “I want to advocate for refugees whose voices are silenced. In South Africa there is a large social inequality between refugees and citizens. I want to do something for humanity.”

As Adams continues on her journey the lessons handed down from one generation to the next will be her guideposts. “My mother is the most influential person in my life. She gave me the steps I needed to live my life. Now that she’s gone I can stand on my own two feet and say, ‘I can do it.’ She always wanted to help people and I hope to continue her legacy. My service to the community has helped in affirming my aspiration to become a human rights lawyer.”

See how Hassina’s story could be your own!

Natalia Montilla

Natalia Montilla
Natalia Montilla
  • High School: Nottingham, Class of 2015
  • Major at OCC: Engineering Science

Natalia Montilla’s college experience started while she was attending Nottingham High School thanks to the Liberty Partnerships Program (LPP), an organization which provides assistance to students who may be at risk or underprepared for college or a career. “Through LPP I was able to take summer classes here for free. LPP helped me get my feet wet so when I became a student full-time I was more prepared.”

Montilla enrolled in the College’s Engineering Science major and was accepted into the STEM Scholars program. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. Montilla’s area of study is one of nine STEM-related majors the College offers.

Montilla’s support system on campus includes the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (C-STEP) and Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation Program (L-SAMP). “Both have provided me the opportunity to meet students with similar mindsets. I’ve made a lot of friends who have similar classes so there is always someone I can ask if I need help with a project.”

In September 2016 Montilla was honored by the community-wide Hispanic Heritage Month Committee for her accomplishments while in high school and college. She received an award at the opening ceremony for Hispanic Heritage Month, La Casitas “Balcon Criollo.”

Montilla will earn her associate degree in 2017. She plans to pursue both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering. She credits OCC and the organizations she has been a part of with helping her build a strong foundation. “I’ve felt so comfortable here. There is always someone available who can help you.  Every new connection I make is so helpful. You can really succeed at OCC as long as you are willing to put yourself out there.”

Lenoi and Jevar Carter

TOP OF STORY Lenoi and Jevar CarterLenoi and Jevar Carter know how fortunate they are. Four years ago they left their home in the Caribbean country of Jamaica and moved to Central New York with their mother. They came for a chance to better themselves, something which they say was nearly impossible at home. “In Jamaica opportunities were extremely difficult to find,” said Lenoi. “We’d be cheating our friends in Jamaica if we didn’t take advantage of the opportunity here and make the most out of it.”

In May 2016 Lenoi and Jevar completed work toward Engineering Science degrees, wrapping up a wonderful three year journey on the Onondaga Community College campus. They were often referred to as “The Carter Brothers” because people confused who was who. Despite their resemblance they are not twins. In fact there the age difference between them is more than three-and-a-half years. They learned to embrace the confusion their similar appearances caused and have fun with it. “We would tell (Mathematics) Professor Oppedisano our wrong names just to confuse him! Eventually he learned who we were,” said Lenoi.

The age gap between the brothers led to a lifetime of friendly competition between them. “Because I was older I was always naturally better than him at certain things,” said Lenoi. “I think when I was 17 he actually beat me in a race. I was like, ‘Oh okay.’ He kept working and working to get better.”

Jevar admits equaling or beating his big brother was a goal since childhood. Ask him what he is better at than Lenoi and he immediately answers, “Sports and geography.” Academically the gap between them was wide with Lenoi being the better student. “When I came to OCC I was copying Lenoi’s style of work and his way of going to class,” said Jevar. “But it didn’t work for me. We have completely different styles of learning. I had a very rough first semester while I was trying to figure out what worked for me.”

Jevar found the answers he needed in the office of OCC’s Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (C-STEP). “Everyone there was so helpful. They could help me with any questions I had. C-STEP provided the support system I needed to get me to the point where I’m doing really well.”

After his rocky first semester Jevar’s grades steadily improved to the point where in the fall 2015 semester his grade point average was only .1 behind Lenoi. “I tried to beat him at least once while we were here,” said Jevar. “I give Lenoi a lot of credit for what I accomplished. He motivated me to better myself.”

As Jevar improved academically he also became more involved on campus. He became a Student Ambassador, giving tours to prospective students. Both Carter brothers were named NASA Scholars and invited to take part in the New York Space Grant program. Lenoi’s sustained academic excellence earned him membership in international honor society Phi Theta Kappa. Lenoi also benefitted from the C-STEP program which introduced him to summer research programs and sent him to numerous conferences and seminars.

During the 2015-16 academic year Lenoi was the student representative on OCC’s Board of Trustees. “I gained self-confidence being on the Board,” said Lenoi. “I realized I could advocate for students and impact their lives. It gave me a different perspective and made me think as a manager.”

Lenoi and Javar are thankful for the opportunities they found at the College. “I’m truly grateful to OCC for molding me into the person I am today,” said Jevar. “I’m glad I made the decision to come here,” added Lenoi. “If I would have gone from Jamaica to a four-year school I wouldn’t have been as prepared as I am now.”

It’s possible the Carter brothers will wind up at different college as they pursue bachelor’s degrees but they vow to remain together in pursuit of a lifelong goal. Both want to give back to their home country and help young people just like them. “We wouldn’t have gotten to where we are without people assisting us,” said Lenoi. “We want to create a scholarship program for young people in Jamaica and help them find the same opportunities here we found.”

Emory Haynes

TOP OF STORY Alyssa Haynes

Emory Haynes experienced one of those transformational moments during her senior year at Solvay High School. As secretary of the school’s Key Club she was invited to a regional conference in Albany. “The main speaker was a representative from the Thirst Project which is a non-profit, college-based organization that goes to places in Africa that don’t have access to clean, reliable sources of water and builds fresh water wells. His presentation was very powerful.”

That day helped her decide she’d like to pursue a career in environmental activism. During the fall 2015 semester Haynes was named president of the Whole Earth Club. Her outstanding academic performance led to her induction into international honor society Phi Theta Kappa (PTK). She’s majoring in Mathematics and Science with an Honors minor and is PTK’s vice president of leadership.

Haynes has benefited from her involvement with OCC’s Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program, known as C-STEP. “It’s fantastic. It gave me access to resources that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise been able to have. With C-STEP you have an advisor who knows you, knows what’s best for you, what classes you should be in, what you’re capable of taking and genuinely cares about the outcome of your success.”

Haynes will earn her OCC degree in December 2016, just three semesters after enrolling. She plans to transfer to SUNY-ESF.

Shelyta Rowser

cropped Shelyta Rowser

Shelyta Rowser is a 32-year-old mother of two who loves the college experience, in part because of what it took for her to get here. “I struggled with dead-end jobs. At some point I realized education was the best way for me to earn the income I needed for me and my family.”

Rowser’s path to an education began in 2012 when she pursued her GED. “I struggled to get it. As soon as I got it I knew I wanted to go to college.” Rowser began taking classes at OCC in the spring 2015 semester and did well. “I’m a much different student now than I was in high school. I’m very serious. My life experiences made me a serious student.”

Rowser has been very involved outside of class. She’s active in C-STEP (Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program) and the Psychology Club. She also spends 12 hours a week in the College’s Audio Visual office doing work/study. “I love the A-V department. They make me feel so comfortable. I’ve actually learned things about electronics!”

Rowser’s success has been a team effort. She’s surrounded by supportive people both on campus and at home. “My husband is amazing. I’m a full-time student and he works. He takes care of everything. He helps me with the children so I can get my work done. Sometimes he tutors me!”

Rowser is majoring in Humanities + Social Sciences. Her goal is to graduate in 2017 and eventually become a clinical psychologist or run a mental health office. “When I saw my first report card I thought, ‘I can do this!’ I love it here. OCC has the resources here to help you.”