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USF Sarasota-Manatee Launches 40th Anniversary Celebration

40thimageSARASOTA, Fla. (June 26, 2015) – Come help us celebrate!

The University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee is marking 40 years of service to the community, and to mark the occasion we’re inviting alumni, supporters and the Sarasota and Manatee communities to join us in a series of celebratory events throughout the summer and academic year.

“Our campus has had a busy and successful year, so this anniversary offers us an opportunity to celebrate our past while also acknowledging all of our successes still to come,” Dr. Sandra Stone, USFSM regional chancellor, said.

Starting today, as we look back at four decades of quality education and ahead to an even brighter future, we unveil a 40th Anniversary web page, USFSM.edu/40, packed with historical information, including a timeline, historical photos, an events calendar and a comment section for alumni and supporters to post special remembrances, greetings, pictures and anniversary wishes.

As the celebration moves forward, we’ll also recall those who most influenced, and continue to influence, our cherished institution by posting snapshots and biographies of these movers and shakers. Expect to see a mix of alumni, faculty, staff, administrators, community leaders and USF System dignitaries. All told, we plan to honor 40 such prominent people throughout the year.

Later, the university will let its hair down for two special, signature events: our 40th Anniversary Kickoff celebration (Sept. 15) and a 40th Anniversary Gala celebration (March 4).

The Kickoff will be a relaxed, casual affair featuring food, drinks, music and campus tours. The Gala will be upscale and elegant, designed to thank those who have so generously supported us over the years.

“These events will be a great way for USFSM supporters from four decades to get together to celebrate how far the campus has come over the past 40 years,” Dennis Stover, regional vice chancellor for university advancement, said.

“The celebration will extend through each of our events throughout the year, but the Kickoff and the Gala will be a spectacular way to showcase all of our achievements and to recognize the people that made them happen,” he said.

In addition to the Kickoff and Gala, regularly scheduled events, such as USFSM’s annual Brunch on the Bay, set for Nov. 1, will feature the 40th Anniversary theme. Expect to see many supporters and others who have influenced USFSM over the years.

USF Sarasota-Manatee urges all alumni, faculty, staff, students and supporters to get involved by sharing your stories at our webpage and joining us in our yearlong celebration.

USF Sarasota-Manatee welcomes students with mixer; more events set

Students and faculty enjoyed a Week of Welcome mixer on Monday. Photo by Krista Schrock.

Students and faculty enjoy a Week of Welcome mixer on Monday.                                          Photo by Krista Schrock

SARASOTA, Fla. (Aug. 25, 2015) – An Information Technology student from Lincoln, Neb., Stephen Bui came to USF Sarasota-Manatee because of its small class sizes and proximity to family in Manatee County.

“There wasn’t another place I wanted to go to that was this close to home,” said Bui, who spent part of his childhood in Bradenton before moving to Nebraska for high school. He now lives in Parrish.

The incoming freshman was among hundreds of students, staff and faculty who crowded the Information Commons area on Monday for a two-hour faculty-student mixer to kick off the 2015 fall semester.

Students and faculty enjoyed chicken sandwiches and mingled outside the refurbished study area on the rotunda’s second floor where over the summer crews dismantled a wall separating the area from the rest of Information Commons.

Replacing the wall with a glass partition opened the area to more light and created an inviting space. Other changes included adding an S-shaped couch, multiple tables and chairs and private-study carrels equipped with flat-screen computer monitors and keyboards.

Bui, who was just getting to know the campus, said he liked the relaxed setting and flexible registration process that allowed him to take a mix of online and in-person classes. Registration will continue throughout the week. Enrollment numbers will be finalized by the end of the week, although early indications point to higher enrollment of full-time students this academic year. Last fall saw 1,917 full-time students at USFSM, a 1.6-percent increase from 2013.

“It’s like a breath of fresh air compared to high school,” Bui said. “In a way, I’m glad to be back in school. The campus is small but I really like it here. Everybody is friendly.”

Psychology student Hannah Veitkus, 20, of Venice said she’s happy to be returning as well, although she admitted to having mixed feelings on coming back.

A member of USFSM’s first freshman class three years ago, Veitkus is entering her senior year. She said she’s looking forward to graduation but will miss USFSM. She said she plans to take a year off after graduation then return to school to pursue a master’s degree in psychology.

“I feel kind of sentimental,” she said. “It’s hard not to love this place. It will be hard to leave.”

A student Ambassador, Veitkus spent four hours Monday – the fall semester’s first full day – fielding questions and guiding freshmen and other newcomers around campus.

This past summer, Veitkus worked as a lifeguard and youth counselor for seven weeks at Camp Kingston, about a half-hour south of Boston. “I really love working with kids,” she said.

Another returning student Taylor Greenan said she spent the summer interning for Sarasota County. Specifically, she worked with code officers to enforce beach-lighting rules. Residences and businesses near the beach are required to follow outdoor lighting regulations after 4 p.m. for sea turtles’ protection.

“I loved it,” Greenan, a biology student, said. “It was important because turtles, nesting turtles and adults, are drawn to white light. They think it’s the moon and they will go toward the light thinking they’re going back to the water.”

Greenan said she’s eager to return to her studies, though.

Several other “Week of Welcome” events are planned throughout the week.

Among them, the Student Lounge will hold “Taco Tuesday” from noon to 2 p.m. and on Wednesday the Student Engagement Office will hold an Open House from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. at its offices at room A110.

Local businesses that support USF Sarasota-Manatee are scheduled to stop by the rotunda on Thursday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to meet with students.

Later Thursday, a giant inflatable water slide will be set up in the Courtyard as chefs fire up the barbecue grill. Sand volleyball matches will be held as well.

Check www.usfsm.edu/events/ for more Week of Welcome events.

Toxic frogs hold fascination, scientific promise for USFSM researcher

One of three black and yellow frogs, Dendrobates leucomelas, at Dr. Edie Banner's teaching lab.

One of three black and yellow frogs, Dendrobates leucomelas, at Dr. Edie Banner’s teaching lab.

SARASOTA, Fla. (Aug. 7, 2015) – When not teaching organic chemistry, biochemistry and medicines of the rainforest, Dr. Edie Banner is “getting back to my biology roots” researching the strange and colorful frogs that range throughout Central and South American rainforests.

The brightly colored creatures are poisonous to varying degrees to dissuade predators. In some cases, their toxic compounds can paralyze birds and monkeys. Even today, the compounds find use in poisoned darts favored by tribal hunters.

Dr. Banner is curious about the biology and chemistry behind the toxins, which she thinks might someday unlock the door to helping people with Parkinson’s or other neuro-muscular diseases “control their tremors.”

Her lab and office, which overlook Sarasota Bay on the second floor of the USFSM Teaching Labs at Mote Marine on City Island, are festooned with reminders of her abiding interest – stuffed toy frogs and frog knickknacks, are easy to spot – but it’s the terrarium with three glistening, black and yellow frogs – Dendrobates leucomelas – that most captures visitors’ attention.

The little animals, which hail from Venezuela, are so shiny and brightly colored that they seem unreal – plastic toys – until one stirs and begins to climb a glass wall. Eight tadpoles and four fertilized eggs live in small plastic boxes under the terrarium.

Dr. Banner says her frogs lack toxicity thanks to a tame diet of fruit flies, moth larvae and springtails (a kind of cricket). They’re part of breeding program for educational exhibits. They also figure into her lectures about the rainforest and diversity of life there.

So impressed is Dr. Banner by the tropical ecosystems – and the scientific mysteries they harbor – that she has begun work on a proposal to bring up to a dozen undergraduate students to Costa Rica next summer for a weeklong “field work” exercise.

The excursion would provide an opportunity for students mulling careers in biology to experience actual field work, she said. Two weeks ago, she returned from a five-day stay to check out the research stations of the Organization for Tropical Studies to host the students. Administered by Duke University, the stations lie nestled in the dense Costa Rican rainforest.

By day, the students would plunge into the thicket – not before a thorough tutorial about snakes and other dangers that lurk – where they would observe, collect samples and ponder how life is interconnected and survives there.

By night, they would live a rustic existence in dorm-like bunkrooms with shared bathrooms. The facility is not without some creature comforts, such as electricity and WIFI reception, but it lacks air conditioning. The students would live mostly a communal life centered around work.

“I want them to experience life as a field biologist, not on Facebook or YouTube, but in the field,” she said. “I want them to be curious and ask questions about what they see and what life is like out there. How does life survive?”

The joint student-instructor excursion would mark the first for Dr. Banner after coming to USF Sarasota-Manatee a year ago.

Before arriving here, she taught a range of chemistry courses for 10 years at the University of Richmond (Va.), Murray State University (Ky.) and Florida Southern College. She earned her doctorate in chemistry at the University of New Orleans.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Dr. Banner developed a fascination for nature early on from her Scoutmaster father, who insisted she hike and go fishing to learn about the outdoors.

“When I joined the Girl Scouts, he made sure I joined a group that did lots of hiking and camping,” she said. “I’ve been like that ever since.”

As for her goals today, she wants to continue teaching and delving into the world of rainforest frogs, specifically how they acquire the toxins that seep through their skin. During her trip next summer, she intends to collect samples of frog “sweat” using specialized pieces of paper.

A kind of “catch-and-release” exercise, the process involves capturing the creatures by hand before they hop away and wiping their skin with the stamp-sized pieces of paper to collect the venom. The frogs only pose a danger if ingested or if their sweat enters the bloodstream through an open wound.

In addition to collecting sweat samples, Dr. Banner said she wants to observe the frogs’ feeding routine. She understands that diet plays a dominant role in providing the toxins, but she is curious about how it contributes.

Are the toxins derived from a single type of insect or several types in combination? Do the frogs’ enzymes, acting with one or several ingested insects, cause the toxins to form? Since insects are at root of the frogs’ toxicity, how is it that they aren’t harmed by eating them?

It might turn out that a certain insect is responsible for giving rise to the poisonous compounds and that the frogs simply capitalize on the bugs to create defense mechanisms. If that’s the case, a whole new avenue of exploration could open up for Dr. Banner and other scientists.

Her trip to Costa Rica would depart next summer and last about a week.

“The experiences I’ve had and shared with my students have made a difference in my teaching,” she said. “I love seeing my students make connections that just cannot happen in the classroom alone.”

USF Sarasota-Manatee interns find success at Informa Support Services


SARASOTA, Fla. (July 31, 2015) – Internships can often become a pathway to full-time jobs. Just ask USF Sarasota-Manatee business student Mark Oefinger, who’s entering his senior year with two classes remaining.

The accounting major started interning a year ago at Sarasota-based Informa Support Services, a shared services center that provides financial services for Informa business units across the U.S. and Canada.

Oefinger, a 42-year-old Army veteran, said he fit in right away with the company, but more importantly he asked lots of questions to quickly learn and adapt to the new position. Impressed by his work-ethic and determination to grow, the company offered him a full-time job when his classes finish in December.

“It’s an incredible place to be at. I’m extremely excited,” he said.

Informa is among the scores of local employers that last year placed 288 USF Sarasota-Manatee students into internships.

“We’ve had a relationship with Informa for years and they hire at least one or two of our students each semester,” Toni Ripo, director of Career Services at USFSM, said.

She stressed the importance of continually checking USF Sarasota-Manatee’s College Central Network for the latest job and internship postings – from full-time accounting positions to a recently posted internship at the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Go to https://www.collegecentral.com/USF-Sarasota/ to view postings and access announcements, upcoming events and career advice. Users can build a web portfolio at Career Portfolio Central® to support their résumé and showcase their work to employers. The national board includes 500,000 listings, including local positions.

Ripo urged students to use every tool at their disposal when exploring job options: “They have College Central. They have the Career Services office. They can even try networking with other students and alumni.”

Informa started partnering with USF Sarasota-Manatee’s Career Services office five years ago. So far, the relationship is working well for both sides.

“Our intern program is dedicated to providing interns with extensive on-the-job training so that their academic backgrounds can be applied to real-world situations,” Informa Support Services Human Resources Director Gail Glickman said. “We are pleased to report that we currently have five interns who came to us through the USF College Central website.”

Among those to recently start at Informa is accounting major Anthony Dedona, 20, who will begin his junior year in the fall. As in Oefinger’s case, Dedona is hoping to go from intern to full-time employee.

“So far I like it and I’m learning a lot,” he said. “A lot of people here are willing to help and they don’t mind if you ask questions. They actually want you to ask questions. They want you to learn and get better at the job.”

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Four USF Sarasota-Manatee professors awarded tenure

Drs. Tricia Hunsader, Valerie Lipscomb, Nicholas Mastracchio, Jr. and Fawn Ngo.

Drs. Tricia Hunsader, Valerie Lipscomb, Nicholas Mastracchio, Jr. and Fawn Ngo.

SARASOTA, Fla. (July 27, 2015) – Four USF Sarasota-Manatee assistant professors are celebrating milestones in their academic careers: attaining tenure.

Drs. Tricia Hunsader, Valerie Lipscomb, Nicholas Mastracchio, Jr. and Fawn Ngo received word of the prestigious honor last month at USF Board of Trustees meeting.

“Given the high regard I have for my peers and USFSM, being awarded tenure is an honor,” Dr. Hunsader, an assistant professor of education, said.

It means “that colleagues here at USFSM as well as those from other universities who reviewed my work are confident that I will continue to contribute throughout my career to scholarship in my field, to developing our university, and to excellence in teaching,” said Dr. Lipscomb, an assistant professor of English in the College of Arts & Sciences.

In the broadest sense, tenure is a sign of trust and academic achievement. It affords professors academic freedom and a right to due process. Tenured faculty are free to challenge the conventional wisdom of any field, including art, science and politics, without fear of losing their jobs, and colleges cannot fire professors without evidence of incompetency or unprofessional behavior.

“Tenure allows freedom of inquiry, the ability to question the status quo, and that inquiry leads to the advancement of knowledge and cultural understanding,” Dr. Lipscomb said. “It’s the foundation of the higher education system.”

Nationally, no more than a third of college associate professors and professors are tenured. About 30 are tenured at USF Sarasota-Manatee, including the four faculty who will receive tenure officially on Aug. 7 at the start of the academic year. Classes are set to start on Aug. 24.

The four come from varying backgrounds. While Drs. Hunsader and Lipscomb teach education and English, respectively, Dr. Ngo is an assistant professor of criminology and Dr. Mastracchio is an assistant professor of accounting.

“It is now my turn to mentor and support junior faculty so that they too will receive tenure one day,” said Dr. Ngo, who joined USF Sarasota-Manatee in 2008. She said she’s planning a book about evidence-based criminal justice.

Dr. Hunsader, who joined the university in 2006, said: “Although I plan to continue to publish, reaching this landmark in my career affords me the freedom to more fully pursue my interests in administration.”

In addition to attaining tenure, the four faculty received promotions to associate professor starting Aug. 7. Dr. Thomas Becker of the College of Business, who is already tenured, was promoted to full professor starting Aug. 7.

For Dr. Mastracchio, this marks the second time he has received tenure. Joining USF Sarasota-Manatee in 2011, Dr. Mastracchio was awarded tenure in 1995 while at USF Tampa.

Experiencing the honor for a second time, he said he doesn’t expect big changes to his everyday life, though his course load will likely grow.

“There is comfort in knowing that my efforts are acceptable to the university,” he added.

USF Sarasota-Manatee approved for minority teacher scholarships

Thalia Meza

Thalia Meza

SARASOTA, Fla. (July 14, 2015) – College of Education student Thalia Meza and her mother were looking for scholarship opportunities last fall when they found a promising one, the state-funded Minority Teacher Education Scholarship.

Meza, whose father is Mexican, applied and learned she met the requirements for the $4,000 annual remittance except in one key area: Her school, USF Sarasota-Manatee, was not among those approved for scholarships by the Florida Fund for Minority Teachers (FFMT), the fund’s administrator.

It turns out, the university was previously approved for the scholarships through its USF Tampa affiliation, but that changed in 2011 when the school earned separate accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. As a result, the school needed to apply separately with the Gainesville-based fund to again attain eligibility.

Undaunted, Meza appealed directly to university officials who were eager to help.

Their work paid off. On July 7, USF Sarasota-Manatee was formally welcomed into the FFMT program, joining 36 other colleges and universities statewide – including USF Tampa and USF St. Petersburg.

“When I found out, I thought, ‘Wow, I really made a difference,’” said Meza, 21, who takes most of her education courses at USF Sarasota-Manatee’s North Port instructional site. “All the people at the Florida Fund for Minority Teachers were very helpful, and, of course, at the university.”

FFMT’s board of directors initially signed off on USF Sarasota-Manatee’s acceptance two weeks ago after faculty coordinator Dr. Lora Kosten made a formal presentation to board members that touched on the college’s history and programs, including academic support and internships.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for our students,” she said. “I think it’s going to build our enrollment and give more opportunities for students of diverse backgrounds.”

Dr. G. Pat Wilson, interim dean at the College of Education, agreed, adding, “Those awarded the scholarships are Florida residents and will teach in Florida public schools, and so this supports our community as well.

“This is good for our students, our campus, our programs and our public schools,” Dr. Wilson said.

Nationally, minority teachers have long been under-represented in school classrooms compared to minority enrollments.

An April 2012 Florida Department of Education study found that while minorities represent more than 57 percent of Florida students, only 29 percent of Florida teachers fall within minority categories – African-American, Hispanic, Asian or Native American/Pacific Islander.

For the past three decades, that disparity has stemmed largely from a surge in minority enrollments. From 1981 to 2011, minority student enrollment in Florida schools grew 219 percent to 1,536,112, according to the study. That compares to an 80-percent rise in overall enrollment and a 13-percent increase in white student enrollment to 1,131,718.

“Definitely when we started looking into the program we saw there was a real need for more minority teachers in the classroom,” FFMT Executive Secretary Daniel Rogers said.

Created by state statute in 1996 to bring more parity to classrooms, the fund has since awarded more than 4,000 minority teaching scholarships.

Of those that went on to earn teaching certificates, 73 percent are still teaching while another 8 percent have transitioned to school administrative roles, FFMT Program Director Cheryl Williams said.

“That’s pretty remarkable in terms of retention in the field,” she said.

The scholarship, available only to juniors in approved education programs, provides up to $2,000 per semester.

The application period for fall scholarships has closed, but the FFMT might make exceptions for USFSM teaching students who apply immediately, Rogers said. He said he expects a handful of applications for the upcoming semester.

Meza said she’s looking to apply again, although by now she might have too many credits to qualify as a junior, possibly knocking her out of contention. Meza also volunteers as a youth-soccer coach in Venice, where she lives, and said she’s always wanted to be a teacher.

Even if she misses out on the scholarship, she said she’s happy to help others.

“It’s only for juniors and even if I’m not eligible, this will help other students so I would be just as happy knowing they wouldn’t have to go through what I’ve gone through,” she said.

USF Sarasota-Manatee professor travels to Africa to advise businesses

Dr. Jean Kabongo

Dr. Jean Kabongo

SARASOTA, Fla. (July 8, 2015) – Dr. Jean Kabongo’s recent return to Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo was more than a homecoming.

The associate professor at USF Sarasota-Manatee’s College of Business grew up just across the river in Kinshasa. So while he made a point of visiting his parents, who still live in Kinshasa, the main goal of his two-week stay was to advise business owners and startups.

After helping companies in Brazzaville, he did likewise in neighboring Cameroon.

When not teaching business management, leadership, international management, entrepreneurship and MBA courses, Dr. Kabongo serves as USF Sarasota-Manatee’s representative on a consortium of eight U.S. and Canadian universities under the Congo Basin Forest Partnership (CBFP).

Comprised of 70 members, including governments and conservation groups, the partnership was formed in 2002 to promote sustainable management of the natural resources of the Congo Basin in western equatorial Africa.

Dr. Kabongo, 52, is playing his part by holding workshops about business and management practices and meeting with business owners. He conducted several such sessions in Brazzaville at the invitation of the chamber of commerce.

“The most common questions I got were how to get funding and where to go or who to see, a bank or international organization that promotes entrepreneurship in Africa,” he said.

After a week in Brazzaville, he traveled 500 miles northwest to Yaoundé, Cameroon, for a three-day conference of the CBFP. More workshops and one-on-one sessions followed, but unlike Brazzaville, the conference’s first day in Yaoundé proved especially tricky.

“We had no power,” he said. “It was held inside a big facility in a government building in the capital.”

Light through windows illuminated the space for the 40 attendees, but because the power was out – a problem fixed the next day – he couldn’t rely on visual aids. He had hoped to plug in a projector.

“I had my notes on my cell phone,” he said. “Fortunately it was charged.”

The lectures, meanwhile, proved lively and “very interactive” with attendees posing questions and talking about their companies, then approaching Dr. Kabongo afterward for advice about their business plans. This went on for hours.

“I would look at their drafts and right away give them feedback,” he said. “We set up a table and they would come and see me and ask questions. I would give them suggestions. It was really like a clinic.”

No stranger to travel – he speaks six languages – this was Dr. Kabongo’s second trip with the CBFP after visiting Africa last year. The journeys have come after more than two decades abroad.

In 1990, he left Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, for Haiti to work for Missionhurst Missionaries, a Catholic organization that builds schools and promotes education and health care training.

A few years after that, he moved to Mexico City to attend Universidad Iberoamericana, a Jesuit college. He earned a master’s degree, got married and in 2001 immigrated to Canada to work and pursue a doctoral degree in business management at Université Laval in Quebec City.

Awarded a doctorate in 2006, he taught for a few years at Virginia State University and then at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. He landed at USF Sarasota-Manatee in 2010.

Dr. Kabongo welcomed the voyage back to his homeland of western Africa, a place of contrasts: abundant in beauty, culture and resources but struggling economically. The people he encountered, including many young entrepreneurs, nonetheless were thirsty for knowledge.

“To see how people are in need and how they want to learn and improve what they are doing, to me it is rewarding that I can be of help,” he said. “I see it as a service to the community, helping people grow and succeed in their entrepreneurial efforts, which can help overall to improve the economic and human development of the region.”

He said he hopes to return next year: “We’ll have to wait and see.”

USF Sarasota-Manatee student, alum contribute to rescue

USFSM student Bryce Makowski (left) and Sarasota Police Sgt. Richie Schwieterman.

USFSM student Bryce Makowski (left) and Sarasota Police Sgt. Richie Schwieterman.

SARASOTA, Fla. (July 6, 2015) – The rescue almost didn’t happen, but thankfully a USF Sarasota-Manatee lifeguard and two Sarasota police officers were patrolling nearby moments after a canoe overturned, sending a young man and woman into the choppy Gulf of Mexico.

The couple, in their 20s, were among the throngs gathered Saturday off Lido Key for the annual powerboat races.

“It was the right place at the right time,” Officer Michael Skinner, USF Sarasota-Manatee Spring Class of 2014, said of the rescue, which unfolded in seconds.

Skinner said he and Sgt. Richie Schwieterman were on a boat patrolling the shoreline when they noticed the couple’s canoe about 50 yards off-shore “slowly turn over” in the surf, sending the two overboard.

The officers rushed to help, thinking they might assist in righting the boat, but noticed the man’s right hand caught underneath. Despite this, the couple seemed fine, hardly worried, even handing over their cell phones and other items for safe-keeping.

“He made a statement, ‘During a time like this, the worst thing I can do is panic,’” Skinner said.

But moments later, the boat shifted, pulling the man under. Schwieterman jumped in to help.

Lifeguard Bryce Makowski, 19, a USF Sarasota-Manatee senior in the College of Business, arrived on a personal watercraft just as the man sank.

He was down only seconds, but apparently that was long enough to inhale a mouthful of water.

“His eyes got big and he immediately went unconscious,” Skinner said.

Schwieterman grabbed him to keep him from sinking further when the man’s hand came free. With Makowski’s help, he maneuvered him onto a sled attached to the back of Makowski’s Sea-Doo. Schwieterman climbed on board to keep the man from falling back into the water.

A minute later they were onshore where emergency personnel were waiting. The man woke up, coughing up sea water. A crowd of several hundred watched and applauded when it became apparent he was safe, Makowski said.

“It’s a good feeling to go home and know you made a difference,” said Makowski, serving his second summer season as a lifeguard.

Skinner, a criminology major and 10-year police veteran, said he was struck by the “randomness” of the events: how he and Schwieterman happened to be nearby when the canoe capsized, how the man’s hand suddenly became untangled and how Schwieterman and Makowski were able to quickly get him ashore on the Sea-Doo.

“Time slows down when things like that happen,” he said. “We thought we were going to help turn over a canoe … then seconds later it’s life or death. It was just random that we happened to be there.”

USF Sarasota-Manatee Army veteran reflects on July 4th meaning

Todd Hughes

Todd Hughes

SARASOTA, Fla. (July 2, 2015) – The Fourth of July means fireworks, barbecuing and family get-togethers to most and then there’s Todd Hughes, veterans services administrator at USF Sarasota-Manatee’s Student Services office.

The 32-year-old Army veteran fought in Iraq. His wife, Jessica, is an Army vet. He spends his days counseling student veterans, helping them enroll and access their benefits for tuition. To Hughes, The Fourth should be commemorated virtually year-round.

“I love celebrating the independence of our great nation,” he says.

Recently, Hughes was in Chicago for a three-day cycling trip for wounded veterans – part escape, part therapy. He has even lobbied Senators and members of Congress for changes at Veterans Administration hospitals.

Fellow veterans marvel at Hughes’ dedication to veterans’ causes. His weekends are frequently booked with bowling matches and fishing and hunting trips for wounded vets.

Hughes can’t explain why he’s so involved: “I guess that’s my lot in life, what I’m supposed to do,” he says.

But he can tell you when it all started. February 2005. He was 21, at the head of a convoy driving through Iraq. Members of Hughes’ squad spotted something suspicious on the road. The vehicle stopped and everyone climbed out. Seconds later, an improvised explosive device went off 50 feet away, sending Hughes reeling backward.

Everything was a blur after that. Hughes’ friends told him a firefight followed the explosion. He couldn’t remember the trip back to base. Outwardly he looked the same. No bleeding or broken bones, which explains why he shrugged off medical treatment. That, plus an unwritten rule that said you fight if you can walk.

But as weeks and months rolled by Hughes learned otherwise. The aches, pains and nightmares he suffered, even after his discharge, traced to traumatic brain injury, soft tissue damage on one side and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Having answers helped, but the problems persisted. It took vets from the Wounded Warrior Project to get him off the couch.

Grateful, Hughes now volunteers with the group, along with other organizations such as the Sarasota County Veterans’ Commission and Manatee County Veterans’ Council.

He regularly joins his fellow vets on trips, even serving as a peer mentor to some. A father of two, Hughes also enrolled at USF Sarasota-Manatee, serving a term as Student Government president, earning a history degree and eventually landing a job here.

Working with veterans outside USFSM – he has since attended hundreds of veterans-related events – gives him a sense of purpose, a bigger cause to fight for, Hughes said.

“It’s put me in touch with other guys who had similar stuff going on, even worse stuff,” he said. “It’s like there’s an instant bond between us.”

As for the Fourth itself, Hughes said he plans to keep it low-key: time off with his wife and two children. They might watch fireworks, but haven’t decided. Being patriotic isn’t about barbecues and fireworks, he said.

“We should be patriotic on a daily basis, not just on a few holidays,” Hughes said. “Regardless of what is going on in the government and all the differences we see in the news today, we still need to hold together as one nation and support our servicemen and women who are fighting to keep terrorism as far away from home as possible. And we need to hold onto the freedoms our forefathers gave us.”

To learn more about the Student Services office at USF Sarasota-Manatee, visit usfsm.edu/student-services.