This weekend about 5,400 students will graduate from the University of Central Florida, including College of Business student Erika Chirino. Although she will be graduating with thousands of her fellow Knights, when Chirino crosses the commencement stage, she will be the first—the first in her family to earn a college degree.
The 23-year-old Miami native, who learned sign language and how to read lips at an early age to overcome a hearing disability, said Saturday’s milestone will be especially meaningful.
“There were times when I felt like giving up,” said Chirino, who also is the first in her family to graduate from high school, “but my positive attitude kept me pedaling.”
And by pedaling, she means literally. After becoming financially independent at age 18 and enrolling in Valencia College, she would get up at 5 a.m. to bike 10 miles to campus for class before making the return trek home that night.
“I had a vision I was looking forward to and I never forgot why I was doing this challenge—to be the change I wish to see in the world, especially for those with disabilities,” said Chirino, who enrolled at UCF from Valencia through the DirectConnect to UCF program.
Growing up with two deaf parents who hailed from Cuba, Chirino’s first language was a mix of Spanish and sign that she learned through a program for the deaf and hearing disabled in elementary school. She learned English and took speech-therapy classes to help her pronounce words correctly. Eventually she learned to read lips. But even as her communication skills improved, she said she often was embarrassed by her hearing aids.
Even when graduating from one of the largest colleges on the campus of one of the nation’s biggest universities, Chirino’s perseverance and attitude stand out in the crowd.
“Erika never ceases to amaze and inspire me with the way she pushes through barriers, takes risks and exhibits drive and maturity you would expect in a more experienced individual,” said Lonny Butcher, professor and director of the Office of Professional Development at UCF College of Business. “I teach over 3,000 students each semester, so it is rare I get to know more than a handful on a personal level. Rarer still is the opportunity to meet a student whose personal drive and ability to overcome the most difficult circumstances actually moves me to a state of admiration. I am fortunate to have played a part in Erika’s college experience, and I cannot wait to bring her back as an alumnae to inspire my next generation of students.”
Chirino credits Butcher, marketing professor Carolyn Massiah, and professional selling program professor Bill Steiger with giving her the opportunity to build a professional network while challenging her to go even further.
With the goal of making the most of her time at UCF, Chirino became vice president of professional activities for the business fraternity Delta Sigma Pi, where she coordinated workplace tours and career development workshops for students. She interned for Wyndham Vacation Ownership and served as a member of the marketing team for the UCF Student Union.
“I learned how to accept my disability and show I am brave. I learned how to overcome this hardship by relying on my skills in building relationship and reading lips,” said Chirino, a marketing major who was one of just 35 students in the prestigious professional-selling program.
Juggling multiple responsibilities is nothing new for the energetic Chirino. By age 7, she had taken on many adult duties such as paying bills and booking appointments for her parents, who had lost their own hearing following childhood illnesses and never received a formal education.
Although her father was a skilled mechanic, she said he and her mother often were treated unfairly due to their lack of education. Witnessing her parents’ struggles, she said, motivated her to pursue a college degree.
“My parents are the reason why I am where I am today and why I am a driven, devoted woman ready to take on new challenges,” said Chirino, who plans to start a business after graduation with the goal of buying her father his own boat and business and setting her mother up with her own nail salon. “It is always a great feeling knowing I have accomplished something good to help my parents live a better life.”