2019 All-State Students

OCC’s 2019 USA Today Phi Theta Kappa All-New York State Academic Team members are (left to right) Katelyn Doner, Kate Hanson and Marigone Istogu.

Graduates of Cicero-North Syracuse and Central Square High Schools along with a native of Kosovo have been chosen to represent Onondaga Community College on the 2019 USA Today Phi Theta Kappa All-New York State Academic Team. All three students are members of OCC’s chapter of international honor society Phi Theta Kappa. They were selected for their academic excellence and community service. The students will be honored during a ceremony in Albany April 24. The students are:


Katelyn Doner

  • High School: Cicero-North Syracuse, class of 2016
  • Major: Electronic Media Communications
  • Katelyn is a member and officer in honor society Phi Theta Kappa.



Kate Hanson

  • High School: Central Square, class of 2016
  • Major: Mathematics & Science with a concentration in Biology
  • Kate is a member of honor society Phi Theta Kappa. an Honors Student Ambassador, a Biology notetaker for students who utilize OCC’s Office of Accessibility Resources and the recipient of a national Coca-Cola scholarship.



Marigone Istogu

  • Native of Kosovo
  • Major: Electrical Technology
  • Marigone is a member and officer in honor society Phi Theta Kappa who interned at National Grid last summer where she focused on Substation Engineering and Design.


All three students plan to transfer to four-year institutions and earn higher degrees. They are highlighted in this month’s edition of our podcast, “Higher Ed News You Can Use from Onondaga Community College.” You can listen to the podcast here.

Student’s Service Leads To Fellowship

Ellie Abraham was awarded a Newman Civic Fellowship for her service to the community. She is pictured in the Gordon Student Center.

Four years ago, Ellie Abraham decided it was time to make a difference. She was been born and raised in Central New York by parents who had immigrated to the United States from Palestine. They knew the hardships refugees faced when coming to a new country and starting over. That’s why Abraham started “Community Care of Syracuse.” “We collect donations for refugees and immigrants and give them to families in need. They come here with so much trauma and so many things going on.”

Community Care of Syracuse has taken off. Students from Onondaga Community College, Le Moyne College and Syracuse University have engaged in service-learning with the organization, volunteering throughout the community. Abraham’s group has collaborated with several organizations including Interfaith Works of Central New York, CYO, Vera House, We Rise Above the Street and Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital on a variety of projects. “Last summer we gave out more than 200 bicycles. Upstate Golisano gave out more than 200 helmets and educated refugees on the importance of wearing helmets.”

In 2017 Abraham decided it was time to try college. “I have three children. I had to show them the importance of getting an education. She came to OCC and enrolled in the Human Services major. Her outstanding work outside the classroom was recognized recently when she was named a Newman Civic Fellow. The yearlong program recognizes and supports community-committed students who have demonstrated an investment in finding solutions for challenges facing communities throughout the country. “I wasn’t expecting this but it’s an honor. When I give back to the community I do it as part of our religion. I do things for the sake of God, I don’t do them to get rewarded. The reward is knowing you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing as part of humanity.”

Abraham wants to learn about mental health and become a counselor. She recently was certified as a mental health first aid instructor for adults and will soon be certified for teenagers as well. On March 28 she will be inducted into the College’s chapter of international honor society Phi Theta Kappa. In May she will receive her degree and plans to transfer to SUNY Oswego and major in Mental health. She’s setting quite an example for her children, the community she serves and plans to take advantage of her fellowship. “I want to build bridges with a lot of people, learn new things and make a difference in our organization and our community. I want to make this school proud. Receiving this honor makes me want to do more.”

Community Care of Syracuse can be contacted via email at communitycaresyr@gmail.com or through the organization’s Facebook page, Community Care of Syracuse.

Vincent Camarena

Vincent Camarena works out a problem in a classroom in Ferrante Hall.

The United States Marine Corps changed the course of Vincent Camarena’s life. Before enlisting in October of 2010, he was pretty much out of options. Camarena had been kicked out of high school for disciplinary reasons and didn’t have any role models in his life. “I never knew my dad and I didn’t have a solid mentor. I was missing a lot of structure and discipline. The Marines filled that void.”

Camarena spent five years serving his country. He was deployed twice and visited 10 different countries while working up to the rank of Sergeant. He also learned a lot about life. “The Marines made me a better person. They showed be the difference between right and wrong. The gave me a list of rules to live by and the mindset to accomplish my goals.”

When Camarena wasn’t training Marines for artillery combat he was taking advantage of his down time. He bought “Books for Dummies” and became his own teacher. “I had to catch up so I educated myself in the sciences and mathematics.”

After being honorably discharged in 2015 Camarena returned to Central New York and worked various jobs. In the summer of 2016 he decided to enroll at OCC. “When I started here, I experienced the ‘imposter phenomenon.’ It felt like I didn’t belong and wasn’t smart enough to be an engineer. I felt like everyone was ahead of me, knowledge wise. But then, the hardened warrior within me summoned the courage to carry on and push through my first semester. After a few semesters I became a better student. I was more confident and no longer feeling like the imposter. Yes, I recieved bad grades, but I learned a great deal from my mistakes and worked hard on my weaknesses.”

The days of the ‘imposter phenomenon’ are long gone. Camarena now carries an outstanding 3.75 grade point average and has been invited to join OCC’s chapter of international honor society Phi Theta Kappa. He’s achieved excellence while pursuing a very challenging major, Engineering Science. His attraction to the course work started when he was a Marine. “My job specialty was artillery. We used weapons that weighed nearly 5 tons and could shoot accurately within one meter from 24 miles away. These weapons are called Howitzers. I was observing them one day and wondered to myself ‘how are the Howitzer, the mortar, weapons, radios, cars and everything designed and built?’ So I did a great deal of research into many types of engineering and the school work that is required.”

During his time on campus Camarena has taken advantage of services provided in the Student Veterans office which is located on the second floor of Coulter Hall. The office is led by a fellow former Marine, Steve White. You can learn more about the Veterans’ office at this website.

Camarena will receive his degree in May. He plans to transfer and pursue a bachelor’s degree as he works toward one day earning his engineering license. As he looks back on where he was at the start of this decade, he offers advice for anyone in a similar situation. “There are two things that can make anything possible. First, you must believe it is possible and make it possible. Second, NEVER QUIT AND NEVER GIVE UP!”

“Start Now” Provides a New Opportunity for Success

The Start Now program brought Sarah Motayne to OCC from Brooklyn. She is pictured at the entrance to campus off State Route 175.

Sarah Motayne remembers that feeling of disappointment. She hadn’t been a great student at Benjamin Banneker Academy for Community Development in Brooklyn but dreamed of attending SUNY Oswego and majoring in Business. “When I didn’t get into Oswego, I was pretty upset. I was bummed.” Her ‘plan B’ was a school in New Jersey but she didn’t get the financial aid she needed. Then she received an email about the new “Start Now” program at Onondaga Community College. “I read it and thought ‘maybe this is a sign I should do this!’ I decided to come here and I’m glad I did.”

The Start Now program is a new joint venture between OCC and SUNY Oswego. New York City students who apply to SUNY Oswego but are unable to gain immediate admittance are provided a pathway there through OCC. Motayne was one of 25 “Start Now” students who attended OCC during the fall semester. They were supported by a student navigator and participated in joint programming at SUNY Oswego designed to help facilitate their transition. Start Now is funded by a SUNY Performance Improvement Fund.

Motayne entered OCC as a Business Administration major but switched to Communication Studies after her first semester. “I want to go to Cosmetology school eventually. I thought I would major in Business to learn how to run a business, but it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I decided to major in Communication because whatever you do you are going to need to know how to communicate properly.”

In the classroom Motayne has done so well she’s been invited to join OCC’s chapter of international honor society Phi Theta Kappa. Her time on campus has become about much more than just improving her grades. She serves as a Student Ambassador giving campus tours to prospective students, works as an usher at the SRC Arena and is a member of the college’s Black Student Union. “My mom is so proud of how well I am doing here and that gives me so much joy. I’m grateful to be here and have this opportunity. I know I made the right choice. I’m glad I chose this path.”

Michaela Grainger

Michaela Grainger in the Coulter Library.
  • Major: Humanities & Social Sciences with an Honors minor
  • Home schooled, from Fayetteville

There’s a pretty good chance a Grainger will be attending Onondaga Community College for the next couple of decades. Michaela Grainger is the oldest of nine children. In May she’ll earn her degree in Humanities & Social Sciences. In the fall her brother will follow in her footsteps and enroll at OCC. “My mother went to school here. She graduated, then went to Syracuse University. She told me she saved a lot of money and I would enjoy it. So far I’ve had a great time!”

When Grainger arrived at OCC she had no intention of getting involved in any clubs or organizations. Now she can’t get enough of them. As an officer in the college’s chapter of international honor society Phi Theta Kappa she has made visits to the Camillus Senior Center and McKinley-Brighton Elementary School where she has advised two very different audiences about technology and social media. She has also served as president of Brothers and Sisters for Christ.

Getting involved made Grainger’s transition from homeschooled to being on a college campus that much easier. “I’m naturally extroverted and love being around people. Because I’m used to a family setting, I love the closeness of the Honors group. We’re a close-knit family.”

Grainger is also a self-described history nerd. She recalls when she was younger how she would read about previous societies such as the Merovingian dynasty of France and make a family tree which would cover a large poster board. “I like learning about past experiences of people and different government structures. I think it’s important to care about history because if you have a good understanding of it you can recognize patterns and apply it to policy now. If we forget our history we are doomed to repeat it.”

History is Grainger’s future. She plans to pursue her bachelor’s in history in the fall. Her goal is to earn a Ph.D. and become a history professor.

Bill Galvin

Bill Galvin pictured in Storer Auditorium at the induction ceremony for OCC’s chapter of international honor society Phi Theta Kappa.
  • Major: Emergency Management
  • High School: Bishop Grimes, class of 1980

This is Bill Galvin’s time and he’s making the most of it. Galvin is a 56-year-old Syracuse Police Sergeant who raised two daughters and is now focused on life after law enforcement. That’s why he’s come to college later in life. “My biggest accomplishments are my daughters and that I was able to raise them on my own. Now that they’re older I want to complete my education at OCC.”

Galvin’s dream was always to be a Syracuse Police officer just like his father, three uncles and a cousin. When he graduated from Bishop Grimes High School in 1980, Galvin joined the United States Army. He spent three years active duty as a Military Police officer followed by three years in the reserves. In 1985 he continued the family tradition and joined the Syracuse Police force.

Galvin had taken the career path he always wanted but eventually realized it wasn’t enough. “People in the blue collar bracket I was in didn’t think we needed college at the time because we had a great career, we made good money, the pensions were great and the health benefits were great. I was able to raise a family. But over the years I’ve always felt ‘just a little bit less of myself’ because I didn’t have that degree to back up my professional life.”

In recent years family conversations often turned to Galvin going to college. Younger daughter Kelly had taken classes at OCC as had older daughter Courtenay who went on to earn a bachelor’s at Le Moyne and a master’s while serving in the United States Army. “Courtenay was a driving force in getting me to go to college. She gave me a lot of encouragement.”

Galvin began taking classes in the spring 2018 semester. He was apprehensive initially but any concerns about feeling out of place as an older student disappeared quickly. “I was very scared coming here to start. I’m thinking ‘I’m in my 50s. What am I doing?’ Then I met the staff here and they were great. My advisors have been great. My teachers and instructors have been great. I feel very comfortable here. I’m really enjoying it and liking it a lot.”

Galvin earned a perfect 4.0 grade point average in his first semester and in October was inducted into the College’s chapter of international honor society Phi Theta Kappa during a ceremony in Storer Auditorium. “I was surprised I was able to come back to school after so many years away and complete the assignments to the point where I could do so well. It was an honor to be inducted. I was very impressed hearing the stories of the other students who were also inducted.”

Galvin plans to earn his degree in December 2019. His long-term goal is to give himself the best employment opportunities possible after he retires from the Syracuse Police Department. “Before I started taking classes I asked many local business leaders what they were looking for. All of them said they needed people with backgrounds in emergency management. Getting a degree and presenting to future employers a better package is my goal. I have all of my police training but I want to give employers more options.”

Elizabeth Clancy

Elizabeth Clancy
  • Major: Early Childhood
  • High School: Oswego, class of ‘97

Elizabeth Clancy is on a mission. She’s a 39-year-old mother of three who is powering through Onondaga Community College on her way to an Early Childhood degree. “I started this journey 20 years ago and now I’m going to see it through,” she said.

Clancy graduated from Oswego High School in 1997 and that fall began taking classes at SUNY Oswego with the goal of becoming a teacher. A year-and-a-half later she withdrew. After getting married and starting a family Clancy took online classes for three years while majoring in Advertising.

The dream of becoming a teacher stayed with her. In 2017, she gave birth to a daughter and knew if she was ever going to become a teacher it was now or never. “In summer of 2018 I thought ‘you know what I’m going to do this. I want to get it done before my 1-year-old daughter is old enough for school. I want my children see me finish and complete something I started.’”

Clancy came to Onondaga Community College and dove in headfirst. During a five week summer session, she took 12 credits. “I knew I was going to push through this no matter what because I wanted to be here. I know where I want to go and what I want to end up with.”

Balancing the needs of her family with the needs of her education was a daily challenge. “My family comes first. I have to make it a priority to fit school in and be the best I can without sacrificing my role as a mom. Every night after dinner we would sit down as a family and say ‘what’s going on tomorrow? Who has to be here, who has to be there, who is driving who?’ It’s the same way with school. If I know I don’t have something due for two weeks, I’m going to do what’s due tomorrow first. It’s important to be aware, organized and wanting to do it. I’m good with my grades and it makes me want to do better.”

Clancy was so good with her grades that during the fall semester she was inducted into the College’s chapter of international honor society Phi Theta Kappa. “It felt amazing. I was always a good student in high school and college but I’d never gotten the recognition. Everything is always about the kids. When my son makes honor roll or my daughter starts walking. I was nervous but it was nice to be recognized!”

Clancy will earn her degree this summer, then pursue a position in a classroom. “I’d like to get a job in a school district for a year and find out what age students I enjoy working with. I don’t know exactly where I’m going to fit in but I hope I find it. It will push me to go back to college and finish my bachelors.”

Olayinka Awokoya

Olayinka Awokoya
  • Major: Mathematics & Science with a concentration in Biology
  • Home: Nigeria

One of the worst moments of Olayinka Awokoya’s life set him on his career path. It happened in June of 2016 in his home country of Nigeria. Awokoya was riding a bus to college when it was rammed by another bus. “It was so sudden. My whole life flashed before my eyes. First I thought I was dead. Then I realized I couldn’t feel my leg.”

The impact of the crash left Awokoya with a serious injury. He was rushed to the hospital and treated but his leg never healed correctly. As he struggled to recover, Awokoya knew what he needed to do. His wife of one year, who was also from Nigeria, was working as a nurse at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. “I decided to move to the United States so I could get better health care and start a family.”

Shortly after arriving in the U.S. in November of 2016 Awokoya went to the doctor for a second opinion. “I was told my leg was not done properly and they had to do it again.” He went through two corrective surgeries and is hoping to be out of his cast next year.

Awokoya’s experience gave him a career focus. “I decided I wanted to work in the health care system.” In January of this year, he started taking classes at OCC. He’s a Mathematics & Science major with a focus on Biology. Earlier this semester he was inducted into the college’s chapter of international honor society Phi Theta Kappa. “It was a very wonderful moment. It shows that hard work pays off.”

The Onondaga Community College experience has been exactly what Awokoya needed as he transitioned from Nigeria to the United States. He’s a regular in the library, the Learning Center, the C-STEP office and the Office of Accessibility Resources. “Coming to OCC has been a wonderful opportunity for me. I’ve met so many people who are so supportive every time I need their help. I’m happy to come here every day because it feels like home.”

Awokoya will keep coming to OCC until the end of the spring semester. Then he plans to transfer to the University of Buffalo and begin pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Nursing.

Being Smart With Technology

OCC students Brandon DeFrancesco (left) and Marigone Istogu (right) quiz 5th graders on a variety of internet-related topics at McKinley-Brighton Elementary school.

“If you see a link and it says ‘click here for free items’ should you click on it?” The question was being asked by a student in OCC’s honor society, Phi Theta Kappa (PTK). He was speaking with a group of 5th grade students at McKinley-Brighton Elementary School. After a brief pause, a McKinley-Brighton student responded ‘no.’ The OCC student congratulated him on his answer and explained that by clicking on the link, you could be exposing your computer to a virus.

The question-and-answer session Friday, December 7 was part of a larger conversation happening in the cafeteria at McKinley-Brighton. PTK students divided up into four groups and worked with students on a variety of topics including internet safety, cyber bullying and privacy. It was the third time this semester PTK students had shared knowledge with students at McKinley-Brighton. “We want to help when we can. We want to give back to the community,” said PTK President Marigone Istogu. “Community service has a lot of positive effects on us. It helps us develop skills, make contacts and allow us to improve the quality of life of others.”

Jon Clark, ’15 speaks with students about value of putting down their cell phones and interacting with each other.

OCC alumnus Jon Clark, ’15 also spent time with the 5th grade students and told them about the importance of putting down your cell phones. He started a business, UnpluggedCNY which encourages people to get off their phones and connect with each other face-to-face. His inspiration came from his experiences while attending Le Moyne College. “One day I saw 15 to 20 students walking to class with their heads down in their phones. Three of them bumped into me and said, ‘watch out!’ I started asking myself, ‘why are people on their phones so much?’”

Clark put a post on social media stating that for every ‘like’ or ‘share’ he received he would give up his phone for five minutes. He wound up with 130 likes which led to him giving up his phone for about a day-and-a-half. “I used social media as a platform to say we can get off our phones. I had people reach out to me and tell me they liked my mission and wanted to be a part of it.”

Clark’s experience blossomed into a movement. He recently put together a large social gathering at which people just talked to each other. “I didn’t ask people to give up their phones but no one pulled their phones out. I had so many people talk about how great it was to actually meet people and learn what they were about. I hope that’s a lesson students will take from today’s conversation.”

Heather Rix McKenzie

Heather Rix McKenzie

Heather Rix McKenzie’s journey to a career started with the premature birth of her daughter. In 2015 her daughter was born three months early and spent 52 days in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Crouse Hospital. “When I was spending time in the NICU I was thinking ‘this would be a cool thing to do.’ It was miraculous what they did there.”

She spent the next year at home with her daughter. During that time she made the decision to come to Onondaga Community College. “Nursing was my original plan. I took a couple of classes that introduced me to Human Services and Sociology, fell in love with it and found my calling.”

Taking classes full time while raising a family presented Rix McKenzie with financial obstacles. OCC’s Foundation stepped in and presented her with the Community Scholars Scholarship for the 2018-19 academic year. “It was really appreciated. It’s less loans to take out. We take out loans to pay for child care. Every little bit really helps.” You can learn more about supporting students like Heather Rix McKenzie through our Believe In Better fundraising campaign here.

Today Rix McKenzie is a Human Services major and a new inductee into the College’s chapter of international honor society Phi Theta Kappa. “It was a big deal for me. I wasn’t the kid who did well in high school. I was the one who teachers said, ‘if you just apply yourself…’ My parents came to the ceremony. I said to them, ‘it took 40 years but I finally got a good report card for you!’”

Rix McKenzie’s daughter is now 3 years old. She’s happy, healthy and doing well in preschool. Her mother has never forgotten the people in Crouse’s NICU and how wonderful they were in the first two months of her daughter’s life. She’s become a volunteer peer mentor with Hand to Hold, an organization which pairs up former NICU parents with parents who currently have a child or children there. “It’s been such a rewarding experience to give back and help parents through a tough time that I understand from personal experience. It has also reinforced that Human Services is my calling and passion.”

Rix McKenzie will earn her degree next May. She plans to transfer and earn her master’s in Social Work. “I love OCC. If I could stay here forever and get my master’s I would. It’s such a supportive place. I have spectacular professors who I’ve learned a lot from academically and personally. They’re as good as any you’ll find at four-year schools. I’ve met so many cool people from so many age groups and walks of life. I tell everybody ‘if you’re thinking about coming back to school come here.’”