UMBC grads navigating personal obstacles find purpose in supporting other students

By: Randianne Leyshon

Two students meet together at a table outside
Chetan Desai meets with another international student. (Marlayna Demond ’11/UMBC)

No path to and through college is without obstacles, and students often rely on community support to succeed. For some Retrievers who are working through challenges, assisting others along the same difficult journey fuels their own success. 

“Doing my best to give back to my UMBC community might seem like it would take extra work on my part,” says Diane Stonestreet ’22, mechanical engineering. “But helping others helps me renew my own energy. To me, those things don’t feel like they take extra effort, I’m just doing my best to pour back into the communities that have supported me.”

Stonestreet is a first-generation college student who transferred to UMBC from Frederick Community College. “My time at UMBC has given me the space to better understand and take ownership of my journey as a first-gen student. I’ve become confident in myself, and aware that I do deserve the opportunities that come my way,” she says.

Stonestreet also makes opportunities for herself at UMBC—taking on leadership roles to support other students. Twice, she served as a coach for the Center for Democracy and Civic Life’s immersive STRiVE leadership for social impact program. She also led an Alternative Spring Break experience and served as an officer for Engineers Without Borders.

UMBC’s McNair Scholars program in particular shaped Stonestreet’s UMBC experience. The program helps students who are first generation, low income, or from other underrepresented groups access mentoring and research experiences, with the goal of obtaining doctoral degrees. 

“I’ve always felt that they supported and understood me as a human before I was a student or scholar,” says Stonestreet, who will be pursuing her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Cornell University this fall. 

Connecting face-to-face

To graduate this May, Shahreen Zannat ’22, biological sciences and psychology, has overcome more than her share of personal and educational barriers. After suffering a spinal cord injury at age 15, Zannat, now quadrapaligic, was told by counselors to expect to attend college fully online. But she wanted an in-person undergraduate experience—connecting with a campus and community face-to-face. 

Instead, Zannat worked with the Maryland Department of Health to obtain enough hours for her caregivers to attend classes with her at UMBC. She also had to find and pay for wheelchair compatible commuting options. 

Zannat’s efforts and self-advocacy paid off—she is the class of 2022’s valedictorian representing the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences and College of Engineering and Information Technology.

Stephen Miller, associate professor of biology, says that Zannat stands out among his students in his past two decades of teaching. “Shahreen inspires by virtue of her elite level of achievement, despite a disability that makes large obstacles out of what are for most people routine activities,” says Miller who guided Zannat’s research in his lab. In addition to her research experience, Zannat will graduate with substantial teaching experience, having served as a TA in Miller’s classes. 

Zannat, who is originally from Bangladesh, says that helping others is one of the biggest values of Bangladeshi culture and was instilled in her from a young age. “After my injury, I have had to rely on others to assist me with activities of daily living, so it’s quite rewarding when I get to extend that same helping hand to others in and outside of the classroom,” she says. “Helping others gives me immense joy.”

Combining personal passion and academic pursuit

Chetan Desai, M.P.S. ’22, data science, came to UMBC from India in Spring 2021, overcoming the barriers of international travel during the pandemic, with a unique goal in mind. He wanted to combine his skills in data science with his passion for sport. He quickly dove in, working as a tennis instructor at UMBC and secretary of the tennis club. He also joined UMBC’s Global Ambassadors program.

Natalie Lobb, graduate international student support specialist in UMBC’s Center for Global Engagement, says that Desai has been “great at supporting other incoming international students to help them ease their nerves about creating a sense of belonging at UMBC.” For Desai, the experience has been incredibly rewarding, whether he is providing international students with information in a webinar or welcoming them to campus at social events.

It wasn’t easy at first, says Desai, “to be far from my home country…but at UMBC I have always found the right opportunities from the right people.”

After graduation, Desai is looking forward to creating his own career pathway in sports data. “I am much more confident now to take up future projects,” he says, “with all the hands-on experience I accumulated as a graduate student here at UMBC.”

Making meaningful change

As a Cyber and Center for Women in Technology Scholar, Priscila de Almeida Feitosa ’22, computer science, quickly found like-minded classmates at UMBC—students who wanted to change the status quo of representation in technology fields. “I want to be a model for middle school girls,” says Almeida. “I want that age group to know what’s possible in this field and for them to see someone like themselves designing software.”

Almeida came to the U.S. through an au pair program to enhance her English, but also for a chance to pursue her passion for math. In Brazil she received a scholarship to study business, but even after getting her degree, she couldn’t imagine a future in that field.

“I didn’t plan that path myself,” she explains. “So in the U.S., I thought, I’ll try for the first time in my life to do something that I want to do. I’ve always wanted to change the world, and it seems like the most changes in the world happen in technology.”

When she found herself floundering in her first coding class at Montgomery College before transferring to UMBC, Almeida was determined to see the class through. “I really put my head into the books and videos, and it started to make sense. When I started to code and saw my products running, then it really clicked for me—I can see myself building something that is actually going to be meaningful for the world.”

Almeida will work as a software engineer at Amazon after graduation. She hopes her experience will inspire other non-traditional international students, just as she was inspired by the community she found at UMBC.

“On campus, I never felt different,” she says. “I never felt nervous when I needed to do a presentation because I didn’t think anyone would care about my accent or where I’m from, because at UMBC everyone is from somewhere.”

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