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As the first college graduates in their families, Torch Scholars share their stories

Northeastern senior David Adames recalled growing up in the housing projects of Brooklyn, New York, where he saw a man “shooting an assault rifle like a water gun,” witnessed a gun fight while he took out the garbage, and encountered a man carrying a firearm and breaking into his building.

“Those were probably the longest moments of my life,” he said.

It wasn’t easy to live in this environment, where he’d run home from school to avoid getting jumped. “I remember just wanting to give up,” Adames said. “But thanks to God, my mom, and my brother, that feeling of doubt never stayed with me for long.” And thanks to a transformative youth leadership program—Jeter’s Leaders—he met Northeastern alumna Simona Vareikaite, a graduate of the Torch Scholars program. “She encouraged me to apply to Torch, and the rest is history,” he said.

Adames, who on Friday will graduate cum laude with his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Northeastern University, shared his story on Thursday at the annual Torch Scholars graduation ceremony. He will soon begin a new job ServiceNow, a fast-growing enterprise software company.

“I am not saying any of these things to brag,” Adames said. “I am sharing these accomplishments to show you how far a student can go when they are given an opportunity to succeed and a support system to guide them along the way. That’s exactly what the Torch Scholarship program has done for me and the many other amazing Torch Scholars graduating Friday.”

Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Northeastern’s Torch Scholars program supports talented students from diverse backgrounds and who are the first generation in their families to attend college. The program has supported more than 120 students thus far, and will enroll its 13th class this fall.

This year’s Torch graduates hail from places as close as Boston and as far as Virginia, Florida, California, and Puerto Rico. Collectively, the class is exceptionally accomplished, having traveled to 11 countries for experiential learning and completed more than 6,000 hours of community service. Graduates have competed in national powerlifting competitions, founded a habitat for humanity chapter on campus, and been inducted into the 2018 Huntington 100. One even rehearsed late-night skits with Jimmy Fallon while on co-op at The Tonight Show.

Another Torch graduate this year, Melody Rivera Hernandez, is the program’s first student from Puerto Rico. She finished classes in December and is now a research associate at Shire, a global biotech firm focused on rare diseases and where she previously did a co-op. In the future, she hopes to earn a PhD in biochemistry and discover treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.

Rivera spoke passionately about how the Torch program helped her discover an interest in research, explore new cultures abroad, and gain confidence in her skills and career path. She’s also grateful for the Torch community, saying, “We started a family away from our families.”

Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Philomena Mantella, senior vice president and CEO of the Northeastern University Global Network, co-founded the Torch program and has played a leading role in shaping its success. She marveled at the Torch graduates for their determination and success. “You humble me,” said Mantella, who challenged graduates to embrace their new responsibility to help mentor and support others.

Deborah Dunsire a Northeastern trustee and leader in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry, shared her story of growing up in southern Africa to Scottish parents who instilled in her the power of education. She earned a medical degree from University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and was planning to become an eye surgeon when unexpected opportunities emerged for her to enter the pharmaceutical industry. Three decades later, she’s worked all over the world and held chief executive positions in that field.

“You can’t tell the path that your life will take,” Dunsire told the graduates. “But with a great education and great training, there are so many different paths you can go on.”

Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University