Top of the Class

Rollins’ five 2019 valedictorians reflect on favorite memories, share secrets to success, and look forward to what’s next.

From top left: Gabbie Buendia ’19, Lizzie Berry ’19, Madison Jenkins ’19, Karly Bland ’19, and Catherine Linder ’19. Photos by Scott Cook. From top left: Gabbie Buendia ’19, Lizzie Berry ’19, Madison Jenkins ’19, Karly Bland ’19, and Catherine Linder ’19. Photos by Scott Cook.

When the class of 2019 walks across the stage Sunday, May 12, for Rollins’ 129th commencement ceremony, five highly deserving graduates with 4.0 GPAs will be leading the way.

Hailing from cities as close as Casselberry and as far away as the suburbs of Indianapolis and New York City, they are aspiring lawyers, conservationists, financial analysts, psychotherapists, and communications professionals. They are athletes, educators, activists, community servants, and global citizens.

Together, they are this year’s College of Liberal Arts valedictorians. Each has a different story, but all share a common theme: Their time at Rollins helped set the foundation for a meaningful life and productive career.

Lizzie Berry ’19. Photo by Scott Cook. Lizzie Berry ’19. Photo by Scott Cook.

Lizzie Berry ’19

  • Majors: Psychology and Spanish
  • Hometown: Zionsville, Indiana

A four-year member of the rowing team, co-president of Voices for Women, and house manager of Alpha Omicron Pi, Lizzie Berry ’19 points to her junior year abroad in Latin America as the defining chapter of her Rollins experience. “It really pushed me and challenged who I thought I was,” says Berry, “and it allowed me to find myself in who I am without running a club, rowing, or Rollins academics. It was a wonderful experience that I wouldn’t change for the world.”

My mentor and how they make a difference “Dr. Kim Dennis, the faculty advisor for Voices for Women, helped me get my bearings in feminist theory and even helped me get to Feminist Camp. My Spanish mentor, Dr. Patricia Tomé, has been a wonderful support both for my time abroad and as I continue to develop and grow as a person. My psychology advisor and thesis chair, Dr. Andrew Luchner, has been invaluable this past year and the years prior. His compassion and field knowledge have been integral to both my emotional processing and academic success.”

How Rollins has prepared me for a meaningful life and productive career “Due to Rollins’ small size, I’ve been able to be involved in a multitude of things, from varsity athletics to running a student organization to doing student-faculty summer research. This has helped me find where my passions lie and increased my marketability as a future employee. The ability to have all of the offices—from the Center for Leadership & Community Engagement to the Office of External & Competitive Scholarship—and faculty at Rollins close and available has also been extremely helpful.”

Why Rollins? “I feel I was able to learn who I was and grow here through all of the opportunities I was offered. I had people who cared about me as both a human and a student, and that meant the world.”

What’s next? “I plan on taking one to two years to work and travel. After that, I plan on going back to graduate school to get my doctorate in psychology to become a practicing psychotherapist.”

Karly Bland ’19. Photo by Scott Cook. Karly Bland ’19. Photo by Scott Cook.

Karly Bland ’19

  • Major: Economics
  • Hometown: Bellport, New York

For a self-described “mediocre student coming out of high school,” Karly Bland ’19 really turned things around in college. She credits Rollins with giving her the confidence and drive to land finance internships with Northwestern Mutual and the National Academy of Public Administration, among others, and gain acceptance into Columbia University’s summer business program after her junior year. Those experiences, coupled with her newfound academic aplomb, helped Bland secure a position on the cutting edge of her field before graduation.

An experience I’ll never forget “I had a really great experience at American University in D.C., which was offered as a study abroad program through Rollins. Our classes took place in various seminar locations in D.C. and New York City. Some of our seminars were at The World Bank, the Federal Reserve, Goldman Sachs, and Bloomberg. We got the opportunity to learn from industry professionals, and this gave me a better sense of where I wanted to be in the future, as far as my career and industry.”

Karly Bland ’19. Photo by Scott Cook. Karly Bland ’19. Photo by Scott Cook.

How Rollins has prepared me for a meaningful life and productive career “Rollins gave me the confidence that I needed coming into college. I was a mediocre student coming out of high school, and I always thought that I wasn't smart enough, but Rollins helped me learn how to apply myself.”

Why Rollins? “I think Rollins is a great school for people who are not confident in their abilities yet. I never would’ve thought that I could excel in college, so Rollins gave me a boost of academic confidence. Otherwise, I would’ve never put myself out there to apply for other programs, internships, and jobs.”

What’s next? “I’ll be starting as a graduate leadership associate at Refinitiv (formerly the financial and risk business of Thomson Reuters) in New York City.”

Gabbie Buendia ’19. Photo by Scott Cook. Gabbie Buendia ’19. Photo by Scott Cook.

Gabbie Buendia ’19

  • Major: Environmental studies
  • Hometown: Casselberry, Florida

On May 7, a front-page story in the Orlando Sentinel introduced readers to Gabbie Buendia ’19, a native of the Philippines who was fulfilling her “double dream”—graduating as valedictorian and, two months earlier, becoming a citizen of the United States. Buendia says Rollins helped her engage with the community she loves through “service, advocacy, and just plain old leisure.” Now, she plans to pursue a career in Orlando and “give back to the people and places that have made me who I am.”

My mentor and how they make a difference “Destinee Lott [former assistant director of Rollins’ Center for Inclusion & Campus Involvement] was the first person to welcome me to campus and the first person to make me feel comfortable. She instilled confidence, humility, and passion in my Rollins career from the start. I would not be the student or leader I am today without her.”

Gabbie Buendia ’19. Photo by Scott Cook. Gabbie Buendia ’19. Photo by Scott Cook.

How Rollins has prepared me for a meaningful life and productive career “By providing opportunities to explore my passion for the environment and gender equality and create change in those areas. My two student-employee positions in the Lucy Cross Center and the Sustainability Program have especially helped me build the professional skills and personal values that give me confidence moving forward.”

Why Rollins? “Because there are so many people and places to learn from, and learn with, around the campus and in the larger community. I think it’s a unique opportunity for such a small school to be so close to such a growing, global community like Orlando.”

What’s next? “I'll be spending my summer in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as an administrative assistant for the University of Michigan’s Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program, which I participated in for two summers. After that, I’ll be looking for employment here in Central Florida.”

Madison Jenkins ’19. Photo by Scott Cook. Madison Jenkins ’19. Photo by Scott Cook.

Madison Jenkins ’19

  • Major: Business management
  • Hometown: Tampa, Florida

Madison Jenkins ’19 looks back on her Rollins experience as one of “endless opportunities,” from playing on the volleyball team and participating in Greek life to traveling abroad. She managed to pack all of it, including a pair of internships, into just three years. She’ll graduate a year early and get a jump-start on her meaningful life and productive career, landing a role with a Fortune 500 company before graduation. She’ll never forget waking up at 6 a.m. for her first Fox Day, thinking to herself, “This is crazy! But I love it.”

My mentor and how they make a difference “Business professor Emmanuel Kodzi is the most wonderful person I have ever met. His intelligence, poise, and kindness create an individual who has provided guidance to me over my three years at Rollins.”

How Rollins has prepared me for a meaningful life and productive career “The business management major provides an extensive array of courses, allowing students to learn statistics, finance, and accounting while also learning leadership and social responsibility. This diverse course load prepared me for a position in the modern workplace, where employees have to problem-solve using multiple disciplines.”

Why Rollins? “I loved the small class sizes. They allowed me the opportunity to ask questions, engage with other students, and build relationships with my teachers, which significantly enriched my learning experience.”

What’s next? “I’m returning to Tampa, where I will be working as an account representative for CDW, a Fortune 500 company focusing on IT services. I’m excited to go home and be closer to my family, including my wiener dog.”

Catherine Linder ’19. Photo by Scott Cook. Catherine Linder ’19. Photo by Scott Cook.

Catherine Linder ’19

  • Major: Communication studies
  • Hometown: St. Cloud, Florida

From the start, Rollins’ mission of educating students for global citizenship and responsible leadership resonated with Catherine Linder ’19, and those are the values she puts into action today as a refugee youth tutor with Catholic Charities USA and as a volunteer with Orlando’s chapter of the United Nations Association. “Creating a more respectful world” is Linder’s goal, and she plans to do her part by “connecting with others through meaningful listening and communication” and “advocating for the inclusion of arts in education.”

What I’ll miss most about Rollins “I’ll miss the learning environment. My classes were very discussion-based, and I value the liberal arts foundation because it allowed me to connect my passions with my studies on multiple levels. I just enjoyed the dynamics. I can name an important lesson I have learned from every single class. It all had meaning.”

An experience I’ll never forget “On my Immersion trip to California my sophomore year, we did volunteer work at a school for hard-of-hearing children, and the structure of the organization was so innovative. As someone who wants to open my own school or nonprofit someday, this experience sparked many ideas.”

Catherine Linder ’19. Photo by Scott Cook. Catherine Linder ’19. Photo by Scott Cook.

My mentor and how they make a difference “The person who has guided me through this journey the most is Dr. Rick Bommelje. I took several classes with him, and he helped me learn the importance of listening and self-reflection. Through this I established my core values and goals. My approach to challenges has changed, and I feel more in control of my responses to situations. I admire his commitment to his personal mission, and I am thankful to have learned with him.”

What’s next? “I took the LSAT a few weeks ago, so I plan on going to law school to concentrate on immigration law. In the meantime, I’m a dance teacher, so my plans are to spend my gap year teaching and creating my own arts curriculum that encompasses arts education and the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. I love working with kids, and creating this curriculum will allow me to combine my passions.”

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

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