Rollins’ six 2020 valedictorians look back on their favorite college memories, share what makes them tick, and eye the horizon.
From top left: Josh Willard ’20, Mallory Bliss ’20, Josephine Spiegelberg ’20, Morgan Snoap ’20, Kenzie Helmick ’20, and Silvana Montañola ’20.
Celebrating the achievements of Rollins’ six 2020 valedictorians may look different this year at the first-ever virtual ceremony marking Rollins’ 130th commencement, but what remains the same is their commitment to academic excellence, leadership, and service threaded through their college experiences.
Hailing from Florida, Honduras, and New Jersey, this crop of standout students includes tutors, museum curators, scientists, choir members, peer mentors, event planners, published writers, nonprofit volunteers, and human rights activists. They aspire to be physicists, professors, anthropologists, diplomats, executives, and art historians and have traveled to 11 countries between them during their time at Rollins. They share scores of academic honors and fellowships, have led Immersion trips across the nation, and have held leadership roles in vital student organizations.
With grit and purpose, each valedictorian has forged a unique path through Rollins, one that has molded them into responsible leaders and global citizens who are prepared—even amid uncertainty—to take the next step in their lives and careers.
Mallory Bliss ’20 credits a holistic education at Rollins for nurturing her “empathetic approach to life” and sparking a desire to combine biochemistry with business in a pharmaceutical career. She cultivated her leadership skills in numerous roles, including as president of Rollins’ American Medical Student Association, where she helped inspire other students through education, support, and advocacy, and as co-president of the Rollins Omicron Delta Kappa National Honor Society Circle. As a lead tutor at the Olin Library, the self-described lover of puzzles relished witnessing her peers’ breakthrough learning moments.
My mentor and how they make a difference “My biggest supporter and source of guidance was chemistry professor Laurel Habgood, who believed in me before I found my confidence and voice. As my advisor, she has guided me to finding my potential. At the abrupt ending of my last semester on campus due to the coronavirus pandemic, Habgood and other professors in chemistry and biochemistry planned an impromptu graduation ceremony with caps and gowns, photo ops, and gifts, which really provided us grads with meaningful closure.”
How Rollins prepared me for a meaningful life and productive career “My rFLA [Rollins Foundations in the Liberal Arts] courses helped me recognize that the world is more than one-dimensional. I was pushed outside of my comfort zone of the laboratory and lecture rooms and placed into discussion-based classrooms, where I collaborated with students on different paths. Through my leadership positions, service experiences, and travels, I’ve connected with a diverse set of global citizens who have broadened my worldview.”
An experience I’ll never forget “My Immersion trip to Chicago focused on how homelessness and poverty disproportionately affect women. When we visited the Lydia Home Association for abused children, the children wore the biggest smiles. I wanted to encourage and help these families achieve the life they deserve. It was a pivotal experience and sparked my interest in service.”
What I will miss most about Rollins “During the first few weeks of my first year, I formed a close-knit group of friends in Ward Hall. Although we shared different majors, personalities, and backgrounds, we became each other’s family. We laughed, cried, fought, forgave, inspired, and supported each other through four years of good and bad times. Our friendship transformed us.”
What’s next? “I plan to attend the Early Advantage MBA program at Rollins’ Crummer Graduate School of Business, and I’m interested in eventually working at a pharmaceutical company as a drug developer or biotechnology executive.”
Kenzie Helmick ’20 is driven to question the status quo, especially around the issue of women’s health. A project through Rollins’ Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program took her to India with philosophy professor Margaret McLaren to research the historically taboo topic of menstruation, and she ventured to Chile for an independent study of the Aymara culture. Back on campus, the Alfond Scholar launched a blog on her specialty, served as editor-in-chief of The Independent, and interned at Equality Florida.
How Rollins has prepared me for a meaningful life and productive career “Rollins provided opportunities for leadership. Being able to engage in so many different extracurriculars that allowed me to look at the world’s issues through a different lens has been really powerful. I’m dedicated to putting the values I’ve gathered in the classroom, from readings, and from conversations with others into practice, speaking up for what’s just and right.”
My mentor and how they make a difference “After I took philosophy professor Margaret McLaren’s Ethical Controversies and Responsible Global Citizenship course my first year, I knew I wanted to study philosophy. I’ve been with her my entire four years, including as her intern for the Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies program. We spent a month traveling in India. I don’t think that my path through college would look the same without her. She’s been my guiding force and helped shape my philosophical and feminist lens. She’s opened countless doors and written me a million letters of recommendation.”
What I’ll miss most at Rollins “I’ll miss being in the same community learning and living alongside my best friends and closest professors. I’m constantly in awe of the cool things people are doing on campus. I love the academic setting and doing research, having productive and stimulating conversations. It’s what’s drawing me toward becoming a professor.”
What’s next? “I’ve received a Fulbright Scholarship to travel to India, developing menstrual education for the disabled, particularly those who are blind and deaf. In the long term, I envision being a professor, specializing in philosophy or women’s studies.”
Silvana Montañola ’20 has led by example. An Alfond Scholar and president of the Alfond Scholars Program, she embarked on seven Immersion experiences during her time at Rollins, eventually serving as facilitator for the Immersion program where she assisted other students on more than 25 journeys of education, reflection, and action. Throughout her time at Rollins, Montañola continued to mix adventure with community service in roles including tutor, teaching assistant, event coordinator, and interfaith ambassador.
How Rollins has prepared me for a meaningful life and productive career “I’m proud of the community engagement initiatives I was able to support while traveling on and coordinating Immersions. I went on alternative spring breaks to Atlanta to learn about poverty and homelessness, and to Chicago to understand women’s issues. I did three Immersions to the Hope Community Center where I learned about immigration advocacy and farmworkers’ rights and led an Immersion to Miami to help relief efforts for Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. Coming to Rollins taught me the true value of community engagement and activism.”
My mentor and how they made a difference “The beauty of Rollins is that you have mentors for every defining facet of your life. Ed Bustos, director of international admission, introduced me to Rollins and followed my ups and downs. Dean Gabriel Barreneche and Jayashree Shivamoggi, director of the Office of External & Competitive Scholarship, were my Alfond Scholarship mentors. Courtney Howell, assistant director of leadership and community engagement, was my boss, advisor, and friend. And anthropology professor Nolan Kline has been my guiding light. By the end of my first class with him, I knew I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
What I’ll miss most about Rollins “Since I stepped foot on campus for my first visit, I felt at home. Rollins faculty, staff, and students make sure you feel safe, valued, and loved. I will miss the Campus Center staff greeting me when I walk in for lunch. I will miss coffee at the Bookmark Cafe. I will miss the ‘goodnight’ and ‘good morning’ from Campus Safety officers. I will miss walking around campus and knowing that someone will offer a warm smile. Rollins is a people school, and I will wholeheartedly miss the amazing people who make it unique.”
What’s next? “I will attend the University of Maryland for a PhD in applied medical anthropology, a biocultural study of how specific populations and cultures utilize medical practices. It’s an ideal field to study how medical services and international politics failed in their efforts to contain the COVID-19 virus and explore what the world can do next time. I hope to become a professor and create the same positive impact on a student that my professors had on me.”
Morgan Snoap ’20 came to Rollins for the small class sizes, which paid off almost immediately. In her first semester, a global art class resonated and launched a close mentorship with art history professor MacKenzie Moon Ryan, who opened her eyes to a career path in art history. Snoap found a niche in an academic field that weaves together multiple threads, including art, gender dynamics, and history through the lens of North African and Middle Eastern textiles, receiving numerous scholarships and research grants along the way.
How Rollins has prepared me for a global citizenship and responsible leadership “When I give tours at The Alfond Inn, which displays the Cornell Fine Arts Museum’s contemporary art collection, I always talk about being globally connected. We have works by American artists and by artists across Asia and Europe, Central America, South America, and Africa. When people engage with those works, they’re equally engaging in global conversations. We’re exposing people to totally different lived realities and experiences.”
My mentor and how they make a difference “Without Dr. Ryan, I wouldn’t have known about the possibilities of textiles or fashion history within art history. She recruited me in my second year along with Cristina Toppin ’21 to help curate what became the first African textiles exhibition in Central Florida. To have a professor ask, at that point in my college career, if I was interested in curating an exhibition was such an honor and a pivotal moment. We worked together for two years through Rollins’ Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program.”
An experience I’ll never forget “Curating the African Apparel exhibition for the Cornell Fine Arts Museum from a private collection of thousands of artworks was paramount for my art history education. The collector welcomed us so warmly and readily into her space. These were pieces that had never been on view before, that had been worn and loved by people who made use of them. The beautiful final product, in terms of the catalog and the display that we have on view at the museum, is fully collaborative.”
What’s next? “I’m entering a PhD program in art history at Boston University. My focus is North African textiles, specifically textile production and related gender politics.”
For Josephine Spiegelberg ’20, childhood dinner conversations with her physicist parents included far-out topics such as femtosecond lasers. At Rollins, she embraced physics as her own calling, which has taken her all the way to Strasbourg, France, for a research internship in quantum optics and to Munich to study abroad. A dual citizen of Germany, Spiegelberg brings a global perspective to serving locally, which she has done in spades as a United Nations Millennium Fellow, president of the Student Support Foundation, and through leadership roles in Alpha Omicron Pi. Now that she’s wrapping up an honor’s thesis about exomoons—otherwise known as the moons of moons—she credits Rollins with helping her launch combined pursuits in science and policy.
My mentor and how they make a difference “Physics professor Chris Fuse, my advisor, has been a guiding force. He’s the person I go to if I need advice or I’m stressed out. I know his family; the physics department is really close that way. Dr. Fuse would say, ‘why don’t you try this or that, and take classes outside your major?’’
An experience I’ll never forget “Presenting at the American Astronomical Society conference inspired me to keep learning and researching. It involved research on planet formation that I did with Dr. Fuse through the Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program. It was amazing to see all of these scientists from all over the world sharing their knowledge, and I was honored to win the Chambliss Astronomy Student Achievement Award.”
How Rollins has prepared me for a meaningful life and productive career “I took an Introduction to International Politics with political science professor Dan Chong, and I fell in love with the way he teaches. It’s a global perspective, thinking about helping fellow humans outside of your own sphere. It really encouraged me to minor in political science and got me interested in science policy.”
What’s next? “I’ll be pursuing a master’s in imaging science at McGill University in Montreal and hopefully later my PhD. I like the idea of doing science advising or policy work, whether full time or on the side as a professor. I want to change the world for the better. That’s something science does, adding on your own little piece of information to what we collectively know. It reminds us there’s a rational way to deal with life’s problems.”
After attending a campus lecture on a whim given by two members of Congress, Josh Willard ’20 decided he wanted to make the world a better place through public service and politics. Just as he has thrived under attentive faculty, he has extended himself to serve the community as well, including as an admissions diplomat to prospective students, a residential life peer mentor, and teaching Spanish to children at Rollins’ Hume House Child Development Center. His undergraduate career is culminating in being published in a research journal—the fruits of a field study focused on the development of the internet in Cuba.
An experience I'll never forget “During my field study on social awareness and sustainability in Cuba, there was a series of moments in a beautiful courtyard of a paladar, a family-run restaurant in Havana, where we ate dinner as a group. I’ll never forget the stories and laughs among students and our faculty sponsors, Spanish professor Patricia Tomé and [Latin American & Caribbean Studies program coordinator] Susan Montgomery. That tight-knit community feeling reminded me why I chose Rollins in the first place. The spirit of Rollins was alive and well in that Havana home.”
My mentor and how they make a difference “One of the many mentors I look up to is social entrepreneurship professor Josephine Balzac-Arroyo. I took one class with her my very first semester and have been going to her office hours ever since. When I didn’t know what to major in or what to do after graduation, she helped me figure it all out and gave me the encouragement to submit my applications and open as many doors as possible.”
How Rollins fosters global citizenship and experiential learning “Rollins prepared me with critical-thinking and foreign-language skills as well as with theories and the knowledge of cultural backgrounds to engage critically yet respectfully with other cultures. My RCC course and Spanish minor helped prepare me historically and linguistically for the field study in Cuba, and classes in international relations and Spanish gave me a solid background to hit the ground running in my internship with the top immigration lawyer in Barcelona.”
What’s next? “I’ll be attending George Washington University for a master’s in international affairs. From there, I see myself working in Washington, D.C., doing research or serving in the U.S. State Department.”
Photo by Scott Cook
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