Merarys “Mery” Diaz knew she wanted to attend the University of Central Florida the first time she stepped on campus seven years ago as a high school sophomore.
On Saturday, the Cuban native who immigrated to the United States with her family when she was 4 months old, will become the first in her family to graduate from college when she receives a marketing degree from UCF College of Business.
The future looks bright for Diaz, who plans to pursue a career in sales after graduation, but her journey to become a Knight almost ended before it began. In her senior year of high school, Diaz’s father was losing his eyesight—and his job as a truck driver—to diabetes. With the family’s primary breadwinner out of work, she said her family’s home was headed into foreclosure.
“The dream of going to UCF felt crushed when my father slowly began to lose his sight,” said Diaz, who gave up her own extracurricular activities, such as swimming and water polo, to support her family. She took on the responsibility of paying bills and serving as a translator for her Spanish-only speaking parents.
She said encouragement from her high school teachers along with witnessing her parents’ struggles motivated her to move out of her hometown of Hialeah and apply to UCF two weeks before the enrollment deadline. She was accepted into UCF, but then came the hard part—figuring out how to pay for it.
“Through the efforts of so many people who believed in me and a lot of hard work, I received multiple scholarships,” she said, including the Virga Family Scholarship, a $10,000 annual scholarship available to full-time UCF undergraduates who desire to be entrepreneurs.
“The Virga Family Scholarship allowed me to be a Knight for four years and have the full college experience and not worry about living expenses or how I would pay for my groceries for the week,” Diaz said.
With her finances settled, Diaz focused her energy on her academic courses and getting involved in the college’s many activities and student groups.
“Mery served in an important leadership role as a student ambassador of the college by helping create and execute events to engage the students,” said Jennifer Johnson, director of engagement and The EXCHANGE at the College of Business. “Mery has a strong dedication to her own professional development, and I have watched her blossom as an ambassador and participant in our prestigious Professional Selling Program.”
Bill Steiger, associate instructor and coordinator of UCF’s national-champion Professional Selling Program, said Diaz may have enrolled in the selling program as a student but she’s leaving as a professional.
“Her commitment to self-improvement was amazing,” Steiger said. “She faced numerous obstacles and never gave up or complained. She will be a rock star in sales.”
For her part, Diaz credits UCF as “the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
“I am leaving here with a diploma, but more importantly, with knowledge, a good network, valuable and transferable skills and an undefeatable mentality,” she said. “I am going into the world understanding so much about relationships, partnerships, team building, vision and creation.”
Donors can contribute to first-generation scholarships to benefit other students at https://www.ucffoundation.org/givetofirstgen.