Jeanine Garcia was too young to remember the day her father Lazaro set sail from Cuba on a raft made of beer kegs and rope, armed with a parcel of food and a dream for a better life in America.

When Garcia walks across the UCF stage Saturday to collect her Bachelor of Science degree with a double major in biology and biomedical sciences and a minor in health sciences, she said she will be honoring her father’s sacrifice 23 years ago.

She is one of almost 4,000 students graduating from UCF in three different ceremonies December 15-16.

“I’ve always told my dad I want to honor his sacrifice and everything that he did by getting an education and seeking out the opportunities he wasn’t able to have,” Garcia said, “and that’s exactly what I’m doing. I want them to feel like it’s all worth it, everything they have gone through and everything they have invested in me.”

Lazaro Garcia says his daughter has given him so much about which to be proud. She was named UCF’s Distinguished Undergraduate Researcher in April, earned two undergraduate research fellowships from UCF and is studying drug therapies for a disease that causes tumors to form on the brain, spinal cord and nerves.

“Seeing my daughter graduate shows me that the sacrifices and struggles our family has undergone have all paid off,” the father said. “Throughout the years we have seen Jeanine grow up to become a beautiful, intelligent and strong woman. Her future is very bright and we cannot wait to see where her hard work and dedication will take her.”

Jeanine Garcia was born in Cuba in the early ’90s. The communist government was in power and was rationing food and basic supplies.  Garcia’s father was a political activist.

“There was no freedom of speech and so anyone who expressed disagreement could be beaten, sent to jail or even killed. My dad was beaten several times whenever he organized a meeting or participated in a protest,” she said.

When Garcia was 3, her father and other men in the family boarded the makeshift raft in secret and left with the promise that they would return for the women.

“For months we did not hear from them and no idea what happened, until they managed to get a letter to us,” Garcia said. “The U.S. Coast Guard found them in the middle of the ocean and brought them back to Guantanamo Bay until they were granted asylum in the U.S.”

Two years later, Garcia and her mother received asylum and came to America and settled in Miami, later moving to Port St. Lucie.

“Coming to America was definitely an adjustment for me,” she said. “I had to learn a new language. For a year or two, I had no idea what people were saying to me. I also remember constantly being afraid that the lights would go off, because in Cuba we only had power a couple hours every day.”

In high school, Garcia played golf, was president of the National Hispanic Society and fell in love science and discovery. She toured UCF, was impressed with its modern technology and facilities, and knew this was where she wanted to get her college degree.

“UCF really laid a good foundation for me to achieve my goals,” she said.  “As a first generation student, it was a bit of a struggle as I had no one to guide me through college. But here, I found resources and support from people who cared and were willing to help me figure out what my goals were and how to get there. It’s really a bittersweet moment leaving UCF.”

One of those guides was Dr.  Cristina Fernandez-Valle, professor and neurosciences researcher at the College of Medicine’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences. Fernandez-Valle, also a Cuban immigrant, became Garcia’s mentor and eventually hired her as a research assistant.

“Dr. Fernandez-Valle has just been great in helping me and guiding me in the right direction,” Garcia shared. “She allowed me to explore different areas in her research, challenged me and pushed me to a certain level I had never been pushed before and really elevated my levels of critical thinking and I am so grateful for everything she taught me.”

In Fernandez-Valle’s lab, Garcia studied neurofibromatosis (NF2) a genetic disorder that causes benign tumors to grow on nerves traveling between the ear and the brain. The condition often causes deafness and movement disorders and is usually diagnosed when patients are in late childhood. With a grant from the Department of Defense awarded to Fernandez-Valle, Garcia researched the effectiveness of Ponatinib, an FDA-approved drug currently used on leukemia patients, as a potential treatment for NF2. Garcia and other researchers found the drug can slow tumor growth without harming healthy cells.  Her findings were published in the research journal Oncotarget, and Fernandez-Valle’s lab is testing the drug on animal models ahead of clinical trials.

“Jeanine has a very warm and positive spirit and despite the struggles she has, she maintains a great attitude,” Fernandez-Valle said. “She came in with very little knowledge of research and she left a very well trained researcher. She met and exceeded all the expectations I had for her and has done everything she can to reach her goals.”

After graduation, Garcia plans to take a year off to apply to medical school and study for her MCAT entrance exam. She believes practicing medicine is the “perfect blend of science and humanism” and wants to focus her efforts on treating underrepresented and low-income families.

“As an immigrant and woman in STEM, I’m so grateful for the education I have received at UCF and the opportunities this country has given me,” she said. “More than anything, I want my story to inspire young women and underrepresented individuals. Know you are not alone and that you can accomplish anything with hard work and dedication despite your background or hardships. If I can do it, so can you.”