National Transfer Student Week Spotlight: Melissa Ezekor
Former Army Culinary Specialist Puts Her Best Foot Forward at MDCOB & Beyond
By Laura Wagner
A transfer student from Lone Star College, graduating senior and E-4 Army Reserve Specialist Melissa Ezekor was recently awarded the Military in Business Endowed Scholarship. She found her way to UHD and her ideal degree program via the Houston Guided Pathways to Success program.
When Melissa Ezekor graduated from high school, she had one goal: to make a better life for herself, her younger sister, and the grandmother who had lovingly raised them despite significant challenges. Her first step to achieving that goal came from an unexpected source: the military.
“I had never considered joining, but after talking to an Army Reserve recruiter, I realized it was a logical next step,” she said. “They would help pay for college and teach me some job skills, and I would be able to stay close to my grandmother and sister.”
Nervous about the physical requirements, she went to a couple of boot camp prep drills before signing up. “I had never run a mile in my life!” she explained. “And they wanted me to run two!” After the first drill, she began training on her own. “I could see myself progressing, and that’s when I decided to commit,” she said. “I saw this was not only making me healthier, it was growing my ability to persevere.”
Lessons From the Army Reserve
After enlisting, she headed off to boot camp—and culture shock. “When I got there, it felt like it was just a lot of people yelling at me,” she recalled, smiling. “But I told myself: You know how to follow orders—so I did. And every time they made us run up and down a hill, I thought, this is good for me. This is growing me.”
Ezekor grew in other ways as well. Raised in the historic Acres Homes neighborhood in Houston, she had always attended predominantly Black and Hispanic schools. Boot camp opened the door to a new world. “There were people from so many backgrounds!” she said. “It was exciting for me to broaden my scope. Just allowing myself to be vulnerable and talk to all these diverse kinds of individuals—I learned to be comfortable in situations with a variety of people.” She added, “I would never have been exposed to that if I hadn’t joined the military. I’ll be forever grateful for that.”
After boot camp, Ezekor was assigned a culinary specialist role. She had never cooked before, so two months of training in Virginia to learn the military’s version of the craft was a necessary first step. Afterward, she returned to Houston and started feeding troops in-between deployments and other troops assigned to her unit. She served at Texas bases as well as in other states, as needed. “That’s when the real hard training began,” she said. “We worked out of a mobile kitchen feeding 300-400 soldiers a day.” Workdays often stretched from 3 a.m. to 10 p.m. “Cooks work hard in the Army!” she laughed. (Photo shows Ezekor front and center, making a peace sign.)
She found the appreciation of the soldiers to be its own reward. “From enlisted personnel to officers, they all would come up and thank us for the meals. They were so grateful!” Ezekor said. For her part, she was grateful to be taught how to cook: “My sergeant, Sergeant First Class Williams, really knew how to make food taste good. And he taught me that lifelong skill that I can share with my family and pass down to my kids someday.”
But it was the relationships with her peers and sergeant that were the best part, Ezekor noted. “I had a lot of self-confidence and self-esteem issues. My sergeant told me, ‘Remember who you are—in the military, in school, in life. You made it here.’ Thinking about all I’d been through in my life and yet I had made it to this place, to being successful at this job—that built my confidence and resilience.”
Choosing a Post-Military Path
Once her contract with the Army was up, Ezekor completed her associate degree at Lone Star College. Then came time for the bigger decision: where to focus her career. “I had to put aside the idea of what society thinks is valuable and figure out my purpose, where I could make an impact,” she said. “I truly enjoyed my experience with the military, but it was not my purpose.”
Real estate, she decided, was her true calling. “I want to become a real estate developer and build low-income housing for families,” she said. “To do that, I needed a focused, very specific kind of degree.”
Considering options for completing her bachelor’s degree, she found UHD’s Risk Management & Insurance program at the Marilyn Davies College of Business. “The degree itself plus the hands-on way the professors teach, the class sizes, and the location—being close to my grandmother—all those things brought me to UHD,” Ezekor said.
Her real estate law professor, Jane Fly, J.D., was a particular source of support and inspiration. “She has a naturally encouraging spirit, and she incorporated her background in geology into our lessons and made the subject make sense in a way I never would have thought about,” Ezekor explained.
Fly also supported Ezekor’s decision to quit her full-time job to fully invest in her education her senior year, and recently wrote her a recommendation for a master’s program in commercial real estate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Ezekor hopes to start immediately after graduating from UHD in December. She chose the online program after taking a sample class for prospective students that involved creating a proposal for a local low-income housing project.
Lessons From UHD
Ezekor is quick to acknowledge the role UHD had in her personal development. “Coming to UHD was so important for me,” she said. “I learned to fully believe in my abilities, and I am now committed to always putting my best foot forward.” She added, “Students here know we’re at a school that cares for us. The faculty, the staff—they don’t just say it, they show it, like helping me get the Military in Business Endowed Scholarship. I thank UHD for that.” (Ezekor recently learned she also received the Frank E. Shields Memorial Scholarship for fall 2023.)
To fellow students, she offers this advice: “Be open and vulnerable with yourself and others—that’s how you’ll get the encouragement you need to move forward.”
Photo credit: Melissa Ezekor
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.