Published: April 17, 2020

In 2017, the UT Journal spotlighted a diverse group of freshmen students from the class of 2020 to explore their passions and dreams for the future. Since then, these Spartans have embraced the opportunities college has provided. We’re catching up with these students – now seniors on the cusp of graduation – to discover how UT has transformed them.

Julia Calandra

Hometown: St. Petersburg, FL

Major: Management; double minor in sport management and leadership studies

Future Plans: Stay in the area and incorporate her event-planning experience into a career as a business manager

Calandra, vice president of the Student Productions programming board, planned student events, such as a comedy performance from Full House actor Dave Coulier, trips to Disney World and concerts featuring artists like the rock group X Ambassadors. “It’s exciting to see the smiles on the students’ faces when we put on an event that they’re going to enjoy,” Calandra says of the role, which taught her budgeting, marketing and logistics.

She interned with the Tampa Bay Lightning National Hockey League team in Membership Services, where she supported season-ticket holders by answering questions and confirming orders, coordinating arena tours and brainstorming VIP experiences. “I grew up a hockey fan,” Calandra says. “Both my parents are from Canada, and it’s always been a part of my life.”

In Summer 2019, Calandra did a six-week business management internship at Ganzo Restaurant in Florence, Italy. She studied Italian, greeted patrons, served food and learned from the manager how a full-service dining establishment operated. These lessons in customer service, teamwork and leadership built on her six years of work at Chick-fil-A. “Working in a restaurant in Italy, I don’t think it can get much better than that!” she says.

Dominique Goden

Hometown: Riverview, FL

Major: History with a concentration in global history and culture; minor in business administration; certificate of international studies

Future Plans: Working part-time for the U.S. Census Bureau, conducting fashion research and applying to graduate school in the field(s) of fashion, textiles and/or museum studies

Before she arrived at UT, Goden was intimidated and shy. “I wasn’t as open or active a person as I am now,” she says. The Success Scholars program for first-generation and underrepresented students showed her the importance of networking. Her confidence grew, and she served as a peer mentor supporting other students, in addition to coordinating Adulting 101 sessions on post-graduate skills like budgeting and saving.

Goden studied abroad in Nagoya, Japan, last summer, which was an exciting experience. Most notable to her were differences in attire: “It was as hot as Florida, but women’s skirts all fell below their knees,” she says.

She also enjoyed interning at the Henry B. Plant Museum on campus, where she created two informational wall placards and a brochure on the pioneering African American fashion designer Anne Lowe (who designed former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress) for the Gasparilla exhibit in early 2020.

Esther Cho

Hometown: Chicago, IL

Major: Communication with a concentration in advertising

Future Plans: Move to New York
City to work in fashion or beauty, or work at a large advertising agency

“I look totally different, compared with four years ago,” says Cho, a lead resident assistant. “I had braces, my hair is blond now, and I don’t wear as much makeup anymore! But my passions are the same: social justice, immigration rights and women’s empowerment.”

Meeting people from different cultures and parts of the world has shaped Cho. “My Latinx friends helped me learn more about their culture, food and music, which is becoming a big part of American culture,” she says. “Some of my close friends are from Trinidad, which opened my eyes to the beauty of Caribbean culture.” Cho, who is Korean, attended a predominantly white high school where she sometimes did not fit in. “Coming to UT and seeing all the different cultures helped me to embrace mine too,” she says.

Art therapy class with part-time faculty member Stephanie Wray was transformative for Cho. “A lot of people were vulnerable in that class, sharing sides of themselves you might not normally see. It was helpful for me to process my thoughts, especially if I was going through a hard time. It was just
a healing time for everybody in that class; our professor provided such a safe space for us.”

Marlena Penn

Hometown: Tampa, FL

Major: Biology with a concentration in business; minor in chemistry

Future Plans: Find a job overseas leading scuba dives or work on a conservation project connected to wildlife or marine science

Penn began college as a finance major and then did a 180-degree turn toward the sciences — and has never looked back. She loved choosing electives like parasitology and connecting with faculty like Lori Benson McRae, associate professor of biology in vertebrate zoology class. “Her passion and knowledge of the animals was phenomenal, just totally engaging,” Penn says.

Penn worked at the Florida Aquarium last year, where she scuba dived, interacted with a goliath grouper, fed and played with a nurse shark, scrubbed fake coral to maintain habitats and was a crew member aboard the wild dolphin cruise. She also did a marine science internship in South Africa.

Her undergraduate research with Robert Masserini, assistant professor of chemistry, and fellow student Hannah Hunt ’20 is a source of pride. She and Hunt will present their findings on measuring small amounts of nutrients in seawater at the American Geophysical Union meeting, and they aim to publish their results in an academic journal. “At UT, we’re lucky that you can be recognized by your professors as a freshman or sophomore and have opportunities to lead research,” she says.

Frederick Elvington

Hometown: Irmo, SC

Major: Political science; minor in cybersecurity

Future Plans: Commissioning in May as a second lieutenant in the Army

Elvington’s time at UT fulfills his late grandmother’s wish that he earn his college degree in addition to serving in the military. Elvington began serving in the U.S. Army in 2012, about four years before he landed at UT. For three of those years he was stationed in Italy, which is where he met his now-wife, Isabelle. They moved to Tampa, largely because of UT’s great reputation, and Isabelle now works as a sales associate for MAC Cosmetics.

As a member of the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), Elvington is excited to rejoin the military after graduation — this time as an officer. He found a mentor in former professor of military science and director of UT’s Army ROTC, Lt. Col. Scott Greco. “He taught me a lot about what it means to be a leader and how to act regardless of any position you’re in,” Elvington says. “That means knowing when to be professional and when to be personal, and showing that you truly care about the wants and needs of others.”

Elvington is most proud of being well liked by his peers, so that they feel confident coming to him with their problems and trusting him to help them find solutions.

Vincent Biffle

Hometown: Indianapolis, IN

Major: Human performance

Future Plans: Play professional basketball overseas; eventually become a personal trainer and open his own gym

A member of UT’s men’s basketball team, Biffle has perfected the art of time management to juggle practice, travel, games and coursework. Playing on the team has connected him with athletes and friends from Spain, Brazil, Puerto Rico and beyond. He loves the diversity on and off campus and UT’s friendly vibe.

The shooting guard emerged as a leader among his peers, serving as this year’s team captain. In that role, he brings different personalities together and delivers pep talks. “You have to be encouraging,” he says, “but you have
to hold people accountable too.” Even when the Spartans lose, Biffle is proud when the squad plays a hard-fought game, and he loves the adrenaline rush of the bright lights and cheering crowds.

He discovered his passion for health and fitness after experiencing how his workouts boosted his self- esteem. “After you see results, it’s very encouraging,” he says. “You see yourself changing, growing, just evolving as a person.”

Claire Swanson

Hometown: Fairfax, VA

Major: Advertising and public relations; double minor in Spanish and aerospace studies

Future Plans: To serve 20-plus years in the U.S. Air Force and strive to achieve leadership positions, or perhaps 10 years of active duty and then the Air National Guard plus commercial aviation

Swanson is proud of the women’s lacrosse team winning its first-ever Sunshine State Conference championship last spring. “Being named to the 2019 Division II All-American First Team was one of my big dreams when coming to college,” says Swanson, who is president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

She began college as a sport management major and worked in communications for UT Athletics, but had a change of heart after freshman year. “I decided: ‘I want to fly. I love aviation. I want to serve my country,’” she says. Being part of the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) helped her develop leadership skills and discipline. “In ROTC, you have a completely different mindset than most people, waking up at 4:30 a.m. and doing physical training, working hard,” she says. “As cadet wing commander in charge of 200 people, that’s an experience most people my age have never had.”

Swanson received her private pilot license at Peter O. Knight Airport on Davis Islands her junior year. Since then, she and her father enjoy defying gravity in his small acrobatic aircraft. “It’s kind of my happy place,” she says.

By Susannah Rosenblatt
Illustration by Sean McCabe
Photography by Alex McKnight




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