Cavel Cassandra Austin left Kingston, Jamaica, five years ago to help her ill mother and to provide better opportunities for her own children. Earning a college degree was the key to making it all happen.

Friday, she’ll complete that part of her journey when she walks across the stage at UCF’s commencement ceremony earning a bachelor’s degree in English language-arts education. She is one of more than 5,000 students graduating during three ceremonies at UCF’s CFE Arena on Dec. 18-19.

“I have had a very rough life, but through it all, it has made me stronger and more determined to succeed,” Austin said. “UCF has afforded me with the opportunity to shine and to tap into my true potential.”

Nothing has ever been handed to Austin. She lived in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Kingston. Despite the challenge, she went on to complete schooling and even volunteered to tutor students at King’s Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church. Students were studying to complete the Grade Six Achievement Test, which is required before entering high school in Jamaica. That’s when she decided she wanted to become a teacher.

When she moved to Orlando, however, none of her volunteer or school work transferred as college credit, so she had to start from scratch at Seminole State College. Undeterred, she earned her associate’s degree and transferred to the university through DirectConnect to UCF. Once here, she was a model student seeking out leadership opportunities and earning multiple awards including the Order of Pegasus Award this year. That’s the highest UCF academic honor a student can achieve.

Along the way, she found ways to give back to others. Austin’s academic success at Seminole State earned her a spot in The Burnett Honors College at UCF. Her experience completing her Honors in the Major Program thesis led her to launch a mentoring program to help other students through the process.

She was a resident intern for a ninth grade English class at a Seminole County high school during her junior and senior years and interned abroad at Tor Bridge High in Plymouth, England, in November. She worked with 7th-12th grade literature students and could relate to the curriculum in the English classroom since she grew up with a British educational system. The opportunity provided her with international teaching experience along with educating 10th grade students about Jamaica during a cultural presentation.

When she wasn’t studying, caring for her mother and raising her two  children, she volunteered at the Coalition for the Homeless in Central Florida and tutored high school students.

“Ultimately, I want to earn my Ph.D. so that I can contribute more profoundly to the education system that will empower students to become future leaders,” Austin said of her long-term aspirations.

In the mean time she wants to teach low-income students in a local Title I school.

“I want to change and nurture students and make them realize that education is important and stop the poverty cycle,” she said.