Valencia College Alumni Association Mary Smedley Collier Distinguished Graduate Award
2017-2018 DISTINGUISHED GRADUATE: Rula Khalaf
When Jehojada Merilan's parents came to the United States from Haiti, they wanted only one thing - a chance at a better life.
Now that their son Jehojada has been named Valencia College's Mary S. Collier Distinguished Graduate for 2018, he is saluting his parents and their story of struggle and perseverance.
"My father was headed for America from Haiti on a banana boat in 1979, with nothing to his name, when the Coast Guard intercepted the vessel just off the coast," says Merilan. His father spent several weeks in a detainment center before being released. Months later, Merilan's mother was allowed to immigrate. Over the next three decades, the couple worked blue collar jobs to put food on the table for their three children, Mohamed, and twins Rebecca and Jehojada, who were born and raised in the United States.
A mediocre student through high school, Merilan was still unsure about higher education when he graduated from Orlando's Oak Ridge High School in 2014. While his older brother and twin sister went to University of Florida, en route to becoming an engineer and an IT specialist, Jehojada opted not to pursue a degree immediately. But after a year of spinning his wheels, he decided to enroll at Valencia's West Campus. His parents breathed a sigh of relief, and Merilan says, it was a moment of parental pride that has only been surpassed by this year's recognition as Distinguished Graduate.
His collegiate success, however, was not instantaneous. Merilan experienced difficulty juggling work, school and a good night's rest. He was having trouble keeping up with deadlines when Marsha Butler, his New Student Experience teacher, sat him down in her office and told him, "I don't want any excuses. You're smart, you're engaged in class. You need to follow through." Merilan took it to heart.
"And that's really when I started thinking about things in terms of responsibility," says Merilan. "I began to ask myself, ‘What am I going to do to change things for the better?'"
A budding interest in international relations then led him to participate in Model U.N., where he practiced public speaking, conflict resolution, and as Merilan puts it, "working with other groups to build a bigger solution collectively."Merilan zeroed in on the coursework, turning in a performance markedly better than his aimless high school days. Before long, he was accepted in the Seneff Honors Interdisciplinary Studies track and, during co-curricular group projects, he found himself naturally stepping into leadership roles.
There, he encountered a concept that is perhaps too foreign in the current political landscape.
"I came across this term: servant leader," says Merilan. "For me, it means someone who helps others through leadership by example."
During group practice for presentations he assumed the role of observer rather than critic. Listening to the speeches of his fellow students, he would take note of the common mistakes, finding ways to avoid them during his own delivery. His techniques would resonate with his peers.
"After I delivered my presentation, I noticed other students using some of the same tricks I used to communicate effectively," says Merilan. "Being able to inspire others, through action, to think differently about something felt really powerful to me."
Now enrolled in classes at UCF, Merilan hopes to parlay his knack for leadership and interest in global affairs into a career in international relations. The ValenciaÂ grad has chosen international studies as his major, and he will seek an undergraduate certificate in diplomacy, as well as a certificate in intelligence and national security.
"I told myself when I got in this major that I want to be a part of a national or global effort to make lives better. I know that's something I can do through foreign service," says Merilan.
Meanwhile, he wants to remind Americans what makes the United States unique.
"My dad grew up on a farm. My mom was a house servant. Economically, they weren't that well off in Haiti, but they were able to come here" and work toward a better future, says Merilan. "Now, my brother is an engineer. My sister is an IT specialist. Myself, I'm studying international politics. These are all things that have happened only because my parents were allowed to come here back in the day... People call America the melting pot, and that's what it is - the ultimate melting pot. We need to see the beauty in that."
By Jimmy Sherfey