Originally published on August 21, 2023 on news.fiu.edu.
Written by Gisela Valencia
The Class of 2027 is raising the bar on success.
These students spent almost their entire high school careers dealing with the effects of COVID-19, remote learning and lockdown. Yet, this class soared above it all.
These gutsy students transformed the challenges and uncertainties of the pandemic into fuel for their dreams. They got creative. They worked hard. They refused to quit on their education and their goals. The result?
The Class of 2027 is the largest class of freshmen attending college for the first time (FTIC) in the university’s history. More than a record-breaking 5,300 incoming students started their journey at FIU this academic year.
The newest Panthers represent 618 high schools across the United States and 55 international schools. The class also includes the largest number of out-of-state and international freshmen of the last several years, according to Jody Glassman, assistant vice president of Enrollment and University Admissions. More than half of the freshmen are first generation students. Among the freshmen are 10 National Merit Scholars. Additionally, those starting in the fall semester boast an average SAT score of 1289, an average ACT score of 27.6 and an average GPA of 4.32.
“They were a class who really embraced experience,” says Glassman. “We saw bigger campus tours, preview days and admitted student days with this class [than in previous years]. They’ve been engaged and present. They don’t seem to be asking ‘What’s next?’ as much as they are asking how they can immerse themselves in what’s in front of them, how they can be successful in the here and now.”
Here we introduce just three of the thousands of incredible students that begin their paths at FIU this semester.
Nature Photographer & Conservationist
Major: Sustainability and the Environment
High School: Palmer Trinity
Fun fact: “I ran track all through high school, and I love to play basketball.”
Luca Martinez is a globally recognized nature photographer and videographer. What began when he was 15 as a passion project to share photos of the Everglades and spread awareness about conservation on social media quickly skyrocketed into a wildly successful career as a photographer-conservationist and public speaker.
His breathtaking photos have captivated millions of viewers worldwide. Martinez has been featured in dozens of media stories, from NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt to Fox Weather and Channel 10’s “Don’t Trash Our Treasure” with Louis Aguirre. Recently, Martinez appeared on the cover of Aventura magazine. Additionally, his work is showcased in the “River of Grass” exhibit in UNESCO’s World Heritage Collection on the Google Arts and Culture Platform.
Today, he is a contributing writer for Oceanographic Magazine and currently has video projects in the works with National Geographic and award-winning producer Phil Fairclough.
Martinez starts his FIU journey this fall. He was selected to receive the FIU Provost’s Achievement Award and the university’s first Provost’s Undergraduate Environmental Resilience Fellowship. The fellowship will allow him to serve as a student leader whose charge will be to engage students across all disciplines to become involved in environmental resilience. The initiative, expected to launch this academic year, will focus on the challenges and solutions surrounding environmental resilience.
Martinez’s passion for conservation — and for the Everglades — began during the COVID lockdown, when he spent hours hiking through the national park, veering off paths and taking photos of all he saw. He was captivated by the beauty. Most people think of pythons, alligators and swamps when they think of the Everglades. Martinez’s work is dispelling these traditional views of the national park. Using an underwater camera rig, he began filming scenes from beneath the surface. What he captured was a relatively unknown world: crystal clear waters, fish the size of his arm and vibrant green plants.
“My plan is to create as much awareness as I can about this place I’ve fallen in love with,” he says. “The Everglades is a place that is dying. My role as a photographer and as a speaker is to raise awareness and help people see how the magic of Miami lies in the bond we have with the land. My goal is to inspire at least one person to care about the Everglades the same way I do.”
He says FIU, a recognized leader in the restoration of the Everglades, is the perfect place for him to deepen his skills and network. He’s particularly looking forward to his role as an environmental fellow and to inspiring other students to take action.
“I’m honored to be recognized as a student leader at FIU, a university that values and supports youth voices,” he says. “This is an incredible opportunity to create an environmental initiative that empowers and educates students. It’s truly inspiring to be joining FIU in addressing the greatest environmental challenges of today.”
He’s also eager to learn from the university’s top-notch environmental and marine sciences faculty. “The professors at FIU are world class,” he adds. “I’ve read papers they’ve written. I’m going to have incredible resources in these scientists right here at FIU.”
Martinez will be sharing his story at an event on campus at the Herbert and Nicole Wertheim Performing Arts Center on October 19.
Luca Martinez (Photo courtesy of Martinez).
“The truth is that so many people my age are disconnected from the natural world. You have to show them what’s alive, show them that this place [Everglades] is resilient. The question is not ‘Whether or not this place is worth saving,’ but ‘What is this place worth to you?’”
– Luca Martinez
Innovator & Inventor
Major: Mechanical engineering
High School: Miami Norland Sr. High
Fun fact: “I love animals! Everyone should know that about me. I absolutely love them, even the animals that scare me a little.”
Teeshalee Chin doesn’t wait around for things to come to her. She makes them happen.
When she was a child and money was tight, she made her own toys using household materials and a little ingenuity. “It didn’t hit me back then that what I was doing was engineering,” she says. “But I realize it now. It really is a passion of mine.”
Today, she begins her journey at FIU as a mechanical engineering major. She was selected as the recipient of the David R. Parker and Marian E. Davis Presidential Scholarship, which supports academically talented students starting their degrees at FIU.
At an early age — and thanks to her parents and several teachers — Chin embraced education as the path to success.
“I was taught to put all my effort into what I do, regardless of who is watching, who is listening or who you are doing it for. I remember my PE teacher said, ‘Character is the way you act when no one is watching.’ That lesson has become a part of me. I always put in my best effort.”
This drive led her to earn a slew of awards throughout high school. She earned the District 1 Student of the Year award as well as her school’s Miss Literacy Award and Vanheim Award (recognizing high GPA, community involvement and positive interactions with teachers and peers). She was involved in her school’s National Honor Society, English Honor Society, Key Club and Art Club, among other volunteer activities. A dual-enrollment student, she was recognized as the top student in a college credit-earning course on personal finance.
Chin also worked with a team of students to host science and technology presentations for elementary and middle school students, where she would teach key concepts and inspire students to pursue STEM degrees. Addtionally, she served as a volunteer chemistry lab assistant at Miami Dade College.
An art class helped Chin realize that her love of sculpting and woodwork could be channeled into an engineering career. Her goal is to one day open a shop where artistry and engineering meet — she will sell the gadgets and machinery that she creates. She hopes to make life easier and more beautiful for people through her creations.
Another major goal of Chin’s: To create affordable housing. Chin understands the issue firsthand, as her family has experienced homelessness.
“No family should have to experience what I did [with homelessness],” she says. “With the way the world is running, rent is not going to get any cheaper. I want to build houses so low-income families can have a nice, decent place where they can stay until they get back on their feet.”
She is eager to learn — and enjoy her time — at FIU. “When I visited campus, I just fell in love with the atmosphere.”
She’s looking forward to participating in the vibrant campus life and joining the Robotics Club.
Service & Excellence Champion
Major: Hospitality and tourism management
High School: St. Brendan High School
Fun fact: “I’ve seen around 40 artists in concert, from the Black-Eyed Peas to Pitbull.”
While serving as senior class president and president of the National Honor Society in high school, Victor Garcia hit his stride. Through those roles, he helped organize everything from homecoming events, spirit week and school dances to food drives and Christmas toy drives. He combined service with excellence. This led him to pursue a career in hospitality — and it brought him to FIU.
“I hear amazing things about FIU,” he says. “I’m excited about the community of people. Also, nothing beats FIU’s hospitality program. And it’s here in Miami, a tourist destination. I couldn’t let that slide by me.”
Garcia is a National Merit Scholar. He graduated with a 5.25 GPA and was among the top 10 students of his class. He received awards, including AP Scholar with Distinction and Highest Academic Distinction. He also earned an AP Capstone Diploma from College Board. As part of the program, Garcia conducted his own research, surveying 200 students, analyzing correlations, writing a literature review and delivering a 20-minute presentation on his findings about the effect of sibling competitiveness on academic performance and motivation.
He was honored with the Archbishop Thomas Wenski Catholic Leadership award, which recognizes students across Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Miami for their service and leadership in religious activities.
As a senior, Garcia launched a service project dear to his heart. He heard his grandfather saying he wished he could put flowers on his mother’s grave. But his grandfather couldn’t bear the trip to Spain because of his physical conditions. It sparked a fire in Garcia.
He reached out to local flower distributors. He asked them to donate blooms that would otherwise be thrown away after beginning to wilt — all with the goal of honoring the memory of those who are no longer with us. Several distributors agreed. Garcia would then drive to the distributors, pick up the flowers and donate them to funeral homes or place them on graves of people in cemeteries that had empty flower vases.
“I wanted to do for the community what I wish I could do for my grandfather,” he says. “I knew how meaningful it would be to him, and what it could mean for others, too.”
Like many enterprising Panthers, Garcia begins his journey as an FIU Honors student while working. He has a part-time job at the renowned Ritz-Carlton hotel in Key Biscayne.
Garcia comes from a lineage of entrepreneurs — his grandparents founded Miami-based Lupa Shoes. He also comes from a proud Panther family. His parents are both FIU alumni and his sister is currently studying at the university.