When transfer grad Renee Richards ’17 first met UCF marketing Associate Lecturer Carolyn Massiah at a luncheon several years ago, Richards was so nervous she couldn’t make eye contact with the popular professor.

Now Richards counts Massiah as a mentor who has helped her reach her goal of becoming the first in her family to earn a college degree.

“I have been thoroughly pleased and impressed with the personal and professional growth Renee has experienced while here at UCF,” says Massiah, who serves as faculty advisor for Collegiate DECA, the student organization for emerging leaders in marketing, finance, hospitality and management. “Renee will be successful in any goal or job that she undertakes.”

Richards received her bachelor’s degree in accounting in Spring 2017, just days before starting her career as a commercial analyst at Siemens.

Earning her degree marked a major milestone for the Jamaican-born Richards, who came to the United States two decades ago as an infant with her mother, grandmother and older brother. A single parent without a high school diploma, Richard’s mom worked in a school cafeteria in West Palm Beach and later became a certified nursing assistant to support her family.

Watching her mom work day and night shifts to make ends meet inspired Richards, she says. She dedicated herself to school and even skipped the eighth grade.

“There was never a doubt I would go to college because throughout my life I always worked hard for that goal,” she said. “If anything, I would say it was an expectation for me to go to college.”

After high school, she attended Palm Beach State College before entering UCF via DirectConnect to UCF. Richards says the transition from her small college to one of the largest universities in the country was shocking.

“I never went on college tours in high school, so I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Richards says. “When I came to campus the first day of fall classes, I was bombarded with how massive UCF was. The first few months, I didn’t quite find a place where I fit in. It took a lot of talks with professors, as well as my career coach, to find my UCF family.”

Many of those conversations were with Massiah, who encouraged her to get involved in student organizations. Richards would discover her UCF family after joining student organizations such as Collegiate DECA, the Young Investors Club, the Financial Management Association, and several local Certified Public Accountant chapters.

“It has been an honor to watch her find her place in this sizeable college at this large university,” Massiah says. “However, I must admit I selfishly would love to see her spend some time in the corporate world and then choose to return to school for her doctorate degree. We are always in need of diverse and driven women like her at the front of the college classroom. The path that she has taken to her current success will only work to make her an empathetic and influential educator to her students.”

Wanting to work with numbers, she found her way to major in accounting and finance. She loved the concepts that stood behind accounting and how the numbers told a story, such as cost-saving aspects and marketing budgets. College of Business and accounting scholarships helped her pay for school.

“Renee is one of the best examples I can find of a first-generation student who has made her way with hard work, tenacity and determination,” says Lonny Butcher, instructor of the professionalism classes at the college. “I’m very proud of all that she’s accomplished. Renee is now working for Siemens and on a great path.”

Richards plans to pursue a master’s in accounting and complete the CPA exam. She credits UCF and faculty members such as Massiah and Butcher for guiding her to her dream job. One day she hopes to follow in their footsteps and become a professor.

“UCF is the best thing that could have happened to me,” Richards says. “When I started at the college, they were rolling out the GEB (General Education Business) professionalism classes, and at first I hated them. Now I look back and see they have been the best part of the beginning of my professional career. I never had any kind of guidance on ‘how to be professional,’ so they were life savers. I would not be the person I am now if it wasn’t for UCF.”