Major: Mathematics & Science with a concentration in Biology
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.
There was a time when all Allison Guzman-Martinez had was hope. She and her two sisters, brother and mother had left Long Island because they could no longer afford to live there. They wound up in downtown Syracuse in the Salvation Army’s Emergency Family Shelter where they would live for one month. Guzman-Martinez was a junior in high school. Every morning she would board a Centro bus to get to school. Survival was the goal. “At the time I didn’t see myself being successful in college. I want people to know you don’t have to start in a good place to end up with a bright and successful future.”
After graduating from Westhill High School in 2017 Guzman-Martinez came to OCC. Today her future is bright. Later this month on the morning of September 25, she’ll walk into room 210 in the Whitney Applied Technology Center and sit at a long table in the center of the room along with Onondaga Community College’s Board of Trustees. As the new Student Trustee she will sit side-by-side with bank presidents, school superintendents and other high-powered local executives as she debates and votes on resolutions critical to the future of the college. “I’m excited as a woman and as a Latina to really come forth and be a representative for our students on campus. It’s an opportunity to bring diversity and a new perspective, I’m hoping students can see me as a beacon of hope and an inspiration and know they can succeed too.”
Guzman-Martinez’s parents are natives of Honduras. Spanish was always and still is today the language of choice at home. Her ability to speak two languages fluently led to her working as a translator for Spanish speaking patients at SUNY Upstate Medical University Hospital. “I liked helping the Latino community because patients do come in to the hospital scared. We’re there to comfort them, to defend the patient, to protect their rights and to make sure they’re not violated. We’re the bridge between doctor and patient. It’s been a blessing to have that job and opportunity.” Guzman-Martinez entered OCC as a Humanities major but her time as a translator changed everything. “Working with patients opened me up to the medical field. I decided to major in Mathematics & Science because I want to be a doctor.”
Guzman-Martinez admits when she graduated from high school, OCC was her only option. She’s made the most of her time here. Guzman-Martinez has served the campus community as president of Spanish Club and as a member of the Basic (Brothers and Sisters in Christ) Club. Now she is adding Student Trustee and Diversity Council to the list. “I’m proud to be part of this school. This is a building block and foundation for where I’m going to go. Onondaga Community College will always be the place that led to wherever I go.”
Elizabeth Luke became interested in a career in biomedical research while taking an AP biology class at East Syracuse Minoa High School. As she and her mother researched higher education options they found exactly what they were looking for in the Medical Biotechnology program at SUNY Upstate Medical University. The best way to get to Upstate would be through Onondaga Community College. Luke came to the College in time for the fall 2013 semester and enrolled in a university-parallel program which would prepare her to transfer to Upstate in two years.
“I came to OCC simply to get my coursework done so I could get started on my degree at Upstate. I didn’t account for how much I would learn at OCC in the process,” Luke said. Two professors played significant roles in her development. Luke said both Dr. Barbara Wells and Maryann Page were filled with knowledge and enthusiasm for what they taught and always had their doors open for professional and life questions.
During her two years on campus Luke was a member of international honor society Phi Theta Kappa and a STEM Scholar. Her experiences both inside and outside the classroom had an impact on her growth as a student and as a person. “It gave me the opportunity to be part of a diverse population that really exposed me to experiences and viewpoints I had not considered before.” In 2015 Luke earned a degree in Mathematics & Science with an Honors minor.
Two years later Luke is now the proud owner of a bachelor’s degree in Medical Biotechnology from Upstate. Her plan to start her college education at OCC worked perfectly. “The parallel program was exactly what I needed. When it was time to transfer I was prepared and all of my credits transferred with no issues.”
A family medical scare set Hannah Rhodes on her career path when she was just 15 years old. “My niece was born with one collapsed lung and needed to be transferred into the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). She spent a couple of weeks there. Seeing the nurses take care of all of these babies who couldn’t live for themselves was very admirable. It really flipped a switch in my brain to gear my education and career toward something medical.”
Rhodes’ passion for a career helping others stayed strong. When she turned 18 she started working in the emergency room at Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton and has been doing so ever since. She works Saturday-Sunday-Monday shifts twice a month assisting nurses, gathering vital signs, transporting patients within the hospital and making sure everyone has what they need. “I’ve really loved my time in the emergency room. It’s something different every day.
About four years ago Rhodes’ fiancée got a job in the Syracuse area and the Binghamton natives moved north. Rhodes began taking classes at OCC while continuing to work weekends at Lourdes Hospital.
In December 2015 during the semester break, Rhodes traveled to Guatemala as part of a service-learning trip coordinated by OCC Nursing Professor Lee Berg. During the 10-day stay in Guatemala students educated Guatemalan’s on numerous health-related topics. “The experience really took selfless nursing to a new level,” said Rhodes. “Being down there, seeing what they didn’t have, understanding what we were able to give them and seeing the joy they got from it is something I will never forget.”
Rhodes will earn her Nursing degree from OCC in October. She plans to transfer to SUNY Upstate Medical University. Her career goal is pediatrics. As for her niece whose health condition inspired a career, all is well. She is 11 years old and in perfect health.
Haley Hurst is attending OCC tuition-free thanks to a New York State STEM scholarship program. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. The scholarship program requires students to graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class, go to a SUNY college full-time while enrolled in a STEM major and work in a STEM-related field in New York State for five years after graduating.
Hurst completed the first requirement by graduating in the top 10 percent of her class at Port Byron High School. When it was time to choose a college she found everything she was looking for in OCC. “I wanted to go to a community college that wasn’t too close to home. I thought it was important to experience life on my own without my parents by my side. I also thought it was important to meet new people. I visited this campus and thought it was so nice.”
Hurst is enrolled in the Mathematics & Science major and is also an Honors minor. After earning her degree she plans to transfer to either SUNY Upstate Medical University or SUNY Stony Brook and major in biochemistry.
When Anne Marie Ciciarelli was a student at Bishop Grimes High School in the early 1970s she knew what career she wanted to pursue but needed to decide the best path to get there. “I was pretty sure about physical therapy but I wanted to ultimately attend Upstate. I thought it made the most sense to go to OCC and earn a two-year degree so I would have something to fall back on just in case.”
Everything worked out exactly as planned. She graduated from OCC in 1975, earned a bachelor’s in physical therapy from Upstate Medical Center in 1977 and married her high school sweetheart Joseph Abt one year later. In 2006 she earned a transitional doctor of physical therapy degree from Upstate Medical University. Today Dr. Anne Marie Abt is well-known as both a physical therapist and an adjunct instructor in the Physical Therapy Education Program in the College of Health Professions at SUNY Upstate Medical University. She has also been a guest lecturer at OCC for several years in the Human Services major. In recognition of her professional achievements and contributions to the College and community Abt is a 2015 Alumni Faces honoree.
It’s been 40 years since Abt earned her Math & Science degree here but her experiences during that time remain fresh in her mind. “I was really challenged by a Physics professor named Alan Gammon. His class was the best class and the worst class I ever took. It was so challenging. He taught me about perseverance and the importance of applying yourself to the material. He was an excellent teacher.”
Dr. Abt additionally credits the English department with improving her critical thinking skills. “I really turned into a good writer thanks to the strength of that department. I had some really good teachers. OCC was a great stepping stone for me.”
Today Dr. Abt is a physical therapist in the Jamesville-Dewitt School District. She works with students with diagnosed disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, developmental coordination disorder and children who are speech and language impaired. Dr. Abt is also an adjunct instructor in the Physical Therapy Education Program at SUNY Upstate Medical University where she teaches a pediatrics therapy course to doctoral students. She is a board certified pediatric clinical specialist and is part of the Fitness Inclusion Network affiliated with Upstate which promotes inclusive fitness for children and adults with disabilities.
Greg Freitag is proof it’s never too late to find your passion. The 55-year-old father of seven found what he was looking for when he took his daughter on a college visit to Paul Smith’s in the Adirondacks. “I loved their presentation on hospitality management and realized I was much more excited about it than she was!” A short time later he saw a news story about Paul Smith’s and OCC partnering on a bachelor’s degree program and everything fell into place for him.
Freitag enrolled in OCC’s Hospitality Management program, went to classes during the day and held down his overnight job in the physical plant at SUNY Upstate Medical University. Freitag also took a second job in the hospitality industry, working at the Courtyard by Marriott in Armory Square where he was named employee of the month. Through it all he maintained a perfect 4.0 grade point average and was inducted into the College’s student honor society Phi Theta Kappa. He was also rewarded with a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence, one of only six OCC students to be so honored.
Freitag earned his degree from OCC in December 2014. “Before I came back to school I had convinced myself I couldn’t do it, but once I returned and got into it I loved it. I enjoyed the teachers, I enjoyed the people I was going to school with, I loved all of it.”
Freitag will start working toward his bachelor’s degree from Paul Smith’s College in the fall. In the meantime he has an athletic goal to pursue. In 2014 he medaled in the Senior Empire State Games Track & Field competition. This summer he will be one of 12,000 participants in the National Senior Games in Minneapolis.
Twin sisters Cara Scalisi and Christina (Scalisi) Martinez have always been inseparable and competitive. During their formative years they were constantly seeing who was best, whether they were playing basketball or comparing grades they got in school. As they got older they realized the value of working together and achieving success together.
Throughout their time at Liverpool High School the Scalisi twins played basketball. They knew they wanted to continue playing in college and hoped to do so together. As graduation neared in 2009 they received an offer they couldn’t refuse. “We were approached by an OCC assistant basketball coach and a former Liverpool player who was at OCC. They told us the College wanted both of us to play together there. The possibility was too good to pass up,” said Scalisi.
The Scalisi twins came to OCC and played integral roles in the Lazers coming within one win of a title. The 2009-2010 team lost in the national championship game, finishing the season with a 35-1 record. “To this day we still talk about that final game. To come so close is something that still eats at us, but we know we still made history and it’s something we’ll always have,” said Martinez.
Women’s Basketball Head Coach Mike Wheeler has fond memories of his former players and what they accomplished during their two years in Lazer uniforms. “They are great young ladies and two of the hardest working players that I’ve ever had. Being able to coach the only set of twins to play for us who were that talented was a fantastic opportunity,” he said.
The sisters were also successful in the classroom but in different majors. “I always loved art. I knew OCC had a great Art program with a concentration in Graphic Design which would help me enter the workforce quickly,” said Martinez. She credits Professors Phil Austin and Christine Kukenberger with providing a great foundation and giving her the confidence to further explore her passion.
Cara Scalisi’s interests were related to health care. While focusing on math and science classes she connected with a former basketball teammate who was enrolled in the medical imaging program at SUNY Upstate Medical University. Scalisi realized how much she liked medical imaging sciences, worked with OCC Anatomy and Physiology Professor Tom Keenan to make sure she had all of her prerequisites and applied. “He helped me achieve success in class by taking the extra time to work with me, by creating an easy-to-learn environment, by showing students many study tips and displaying a real care and concern for all of his students. When I was accepted into Upstate’s program it was very exciting,” said Scalisi.
Since graduating from OCC in 2011 the sisters are continuing to experience success. Martinez works in graphic design at Cooper & Clement in Syracuse. Scalisi is an x-ray technologist at St. Joseph’s Imaging Associates in North Medical Center in Liverpool. Martinez recently got married and Scalisi is interested in getting back into basketball part-time as a coach.
Their time spent together at OCC is never far away. “We keep in touch with many of our teammates. Our bond was tremendous, much like a family,” said Scalisi. “Coach Wheeler emphasized the importance of academics and for us to look out for one another. It all carried over into our life beyond OCC,” said Martinez. The sisters joined several former players in February 2015 for the first ever Women’s Basketball Alumni Game at Allyn Hall.
The sisters have advice for current students and new graduates:
Don’t give up on your dreams.
Have fun and be passionate about what you want to do.
Be ready to work. The more you put in the more you get out.
Networking is critical. Don’t be afraid to meet people.
Two of OCC’s best and brightest students were honored for their academic excellence and community service Monday, March 9 in Albany. Alena Cerro and Greg Frietag represented the College at the USA Today Phi Theta Kappa All-New York Academic Team Recognition Ceremony at the New York State Museum. SUNY Community College students from across the state were singled out for their achievements.
Students and family members in attendance were treated to inspirational remarks from SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher and Dr. Rod A. Risley, Executive Director of Phi Theta Kappa, the student honor society for two-year college students. During the ceremony each student was called up individually, presented an honorary medal and photographed with Zimpher and Risley.
Four of Central New York’s elected representatives came to the museum to congratulate Cerro and Freitag including: Assemblyman William Magnarelli (D, 129th District), Assemblyman Sam Roberts (D, 128th District), Assemblyman Al Stirpe (D, 129th District) and Senator Dave Valesky (D, 53rd District).
Following the event Cerro and Frietag were escorted to the New York State Assembly chambers were they were singled out for their accomplishments. Assemblyman Al Stirpe, a Democrat representing the 127th District told his colleagues about Cerro and Freitag’s achievements:
“Alena Cerro is an Electronic Media Communications major at Onondaga Community College. She is vice president for public relations for the College’s Alpha Sigma Zeta chapter. Cerro also serves as an Honors Program Student Ambassador and Honors Program Committee Student Representative. Cerro has earned President’s List status each semester on campus, received numerous scholarships and awards and participated in service learning projects. She is an intern in OCC’s External Relations and Marketing & New Media departments. Cerro is a 2013 graduate of Liverpool High School.”
“Greg Freitag is a Hospitality Management major at Onondaga Community College. He has maintained a 4.0 GPA while volunteering for campus events, working several jobs and raising seven children. Freitag works full time on the overnight shift as a Plant Utilities Engineer at SUNY Upstate Medical University. He also works in the hospitality industry at the Courtyard by Marriott in Armory Square where he has been named employee of the month. In 2014 Freitag medaled in the Empire State Games Track & Field competition. This summer he will be one of 12,000 participants in the National Senior Games in Minneapolis. Freitag is a 1977 graduate of Olympia High School in Greece, New York.”
William Magnarelli, a Democrat representing the 129th District also addressed fellow colleagues. “Alena is a young lady with her whole future in front of her. Greg’s accomplishments are remarkable as well. Both of them are to be commended and I wish them the best in their future endeavors.” When Magnarelli finished speaking members of the Assembly applauded Cerro and Freitag.
The day of recognition was greatly appreciated by Cerro and Freitag.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. It’s an honor to be able to accept this award on behalf of my college and the mentors who have nominated me for it. It’s just such a special day. I’m so lucky to be here,” Cerro said.
“I am overwhelmed. I think of myself as such a regular guy, not someone who’s worthy of all the attention that’s been given me. It’s all been a great honor and an extreme pleasure,” Freitag said.
Two OCC students will be honored for their academic excellence and community service at a statewide event in Albany. The USA Today Phi Theta Kappa All-New York Academic Team Recognition Ceremony will take place Monday, March 9 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the New York State Museum. All SUNY Community College Presidents will be in attendance along with elected officials. Speakers will include SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher and Dr. Rod A. Risley, Executive Director of Phi Theta Kappa.
OCC’s student honorees are Alena Cerro and Greg Freitag.
Cerro is an Electronic Media Communications major, is vice president of public relations for the College’s Alpha Sigma Zeta chapter and serves as an Honors Program Student Ambassador and Honors Program Committee Student Representative. She has earned President’s List status each semester on campus, received numerous scholarships and awards and participated in service learning projects. Cerro is an intern in OCC’s External Relations and Marketing & New Media departments. She is a 2013 graduate of Liverpool High School.
Freitag is a Hospitality Management major. He has maintained a 4.0 GPA while volunteering for campus events, working several jobs and raising seven children. He works full time on the overnight shift as a Plant Utilities Engineer at SUNY Upstate Medical University. Freitag also works in the hospitality industry at the Courtyard by Marriott in Armory Square where he has been named employee of the month. In 2014 he medaled in the Empire State Games Track & Field competition. This summer Freitag will be one of 12,000 participants in the National Senior Games in Minneapolis. He is a 1977 graduate of Olympia High School in Greece.
“We are so proud of Alena and Greg and all they have accomplished,” said OCC President Dr. Casey Crabill. “Their stories are a wonderful example of the opportunities available here at OCC and on community college campuses across the nation through Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. A student who graduated from high school two years ago and a seasoned adult student making a career change are both succeeding at high levels and preparing themselves for outstanding careers. We salute both of them and look forward to honoring their achievements during this ceremony.”
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