13:22 PM

Inspiring Gator Graduates

Four Students Celebrated During 73rd Commencement


By Marie Jacinto

More than 2,500 UHD students graduated on Dec. 10 during UHD’s 73rd Commencement ceremonies at Minute Maid Park, and each had a unique story to tell of determination, dedication, and sheer Gator Grit. During his remarks, President Blanchard told four of these stories.

Kaili Mora-Duarte 

A graduate of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Kaili Mora-Duarte faced the challenges of COVID from his first semester at UHD until his last semester, when he was finally able to take in-person classes. That made him feel more engaged than ever before. 

A full-time student, he also worked full-time while participating in one-act plays, writing for local magazines, creating art out of leather, and interning for UHD’s literary and arts magazine, The Bayou Review, as an inspired editor. Truly creative and multi-talented, Mora-Duarte excels academically and plans to go to graduate school in creative writing at the University of Houston. He aspires to teach, someday showcasing what he has learned in his own classroom and educating the writers of tomorrow.

Mireille Aziz 

Mireille Aziz graduated from the College of Sciences & Technology with her certification to teach secondary-level mathematics. Her pathway to becoming a certified teacher was not a smooth one. Midway through her college career, the mother of two lost her husband to COVID. After her tragic loss almost two years ago, she pursued her studies with excellence amid the challenges of being a single mom and the uncertainty of navigating both the U.S. and Lebanese legal systems in finalizing her husband’s will. She has often attended virtual court hearings in the middle of the night due to the time difference and then reported the following mornings to UHD classes or to the high school math classroom to complete her student teaching experience. 

As her student teaching semester neared completion, Mireille’s students begged her to stay as their full-time teacher, evidence of her commitment to them despite her competing priorities. Likewise, her work in her UHD courses demonstrated a deep care for detail and accuracy. She has shown that Gator Grit transcends working hours, persists through the ravages of deadly diseases, and strengthens resolve across international borders.

Nico Werderman

President of the Student Supply Chain Management Association, Nico Werderman grew up living in four different states as the son of Air Force parents. That’s why today, with his outgoing personality, he knows no strangers. 

He’s had a long journey to earning his business degree of value, starting with his first college class in 2008. He worked as an EMT for eight years, eventually completing his paramedic training, and was a Volunteer Firefighter for the Klein Volunteer Fire Department. 

Werderman transferred to UHD from Lone Star College as part of the Accelerated Transfer Academy, and during his time at UHD, he received the Red Rose Scholarship and a scholarship from the International Transportation Management Association. 

Serving others is in Wederman'’s blood, and he has volunteered for multiple organizations, including Ronald McDonald House, Special Olympics, and the Houston Food Bank. 

What makes his story even more compelling is that as a high schooler, he experienced extreme challenges as a result of undiagnosed attention deficit disorder (ADD), which caused him to drop out of high school. Today, Wederrman epitomizes Gator Grit, and through his determination and dedication, he graduated magna cum laude from the Marilyn Davies College of Business.

Jayonn Johnson

Jayonn Johnson, one of two women graduating from the Structural Analysis and Design Department from the College of Sciences & Technology, is the first female engineer in her family. She served as President of the UHD American Society of Civil Engineers and represented UHD at the Fall 2022 American Concrete Institute Convention. She also served as Parliamentarian for UHD’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, an organization that she found incredibly rewarding. By helping students through free Fundamentals of Engineering study sessions, site visits, and workshops, she realized that one small contribution can have a major impact on a person’s life. 

The importance of giving back is something she learned from her mother. As a single mom, her mother moved Johnson and her brother Tahj from Denver to Houston to make a better life. She credits her mother with sticking by her and constantly telling her that the sky’s not the limit … it is infinity and beyond. She also taught her that once you make it, never forget where you came from: Give back and lend a hand to others. Johnson says the Scholars Academy allowed her to showcase the stewardship that was fundamental in how her mother raised her. 

The path has not been easy. She suffered from COVID and worried constantly about her brother, a UHD alumnus and biomedical engineer in the U.S. Air Force who was deployed to war zones to care for COVID patients. Johnson credits the relationships that she formed with UHD’s Engineering Department faculty, especially Dr. Jorge Tito, as helping her reach her goals. She graduated summa cum laude, debt-free, with her dream job awaiting her as a structural engineer with Kiewit, one of North America’s largest and most respected engineering and construction companies. 

Jayonn, Kaili, Mireille, and Nico are true examples of the quality of students who attend UHD. For more inspiring stories of our Gator graduates, watch UHD’s ‘Stole of Gratitude’ Series.