Finding their voice

Attaining success in education, careers and life

For 60 years, Indian River State College has enjoyed countless advancements, seen momentous change and experienced historic growth. Throughout it all, there has been no greater priority than student success.

The college’s diverse student population represents Indian River, Martin, Okeechobee and St. Lucie counties, and varies widely in age, background, and circumstance. Their collective stories of accomplishment and perseverance is what drives and motivates IRSC faculty, staff and administrative employees each day.

The following vignettes highlight a selection of these extraordinary students and their successes.

Victor Tapia and IRSC LEAP Program Coordinator Jenny Champagne
Victor Tapia and IRSC LEAP Program Coordinator Jenny Champagne. PHOTOS BY MOLLY BARTELS


“I do what I can to help because I’ve been there. I’ve needed help and it was hard to ask for it. Thanks to the IRSC Farmworker Program, I got my direction.”

— Victor Tapia, Fort Pierce

Victor Tapia grew up in a family that was constantly on the move. Migrating from different states and towns to pick fruit with his parents and brothers didn’t provide him the opportunity to stay in school consistently or benefit from education. “I started hustling to make money and spent 10 years in and out of prison,” recalls Victor. “When I got out the last time, I wanted help.”

Victor’s mom told him about the Farmworker Career Development Program at IRSC. The program is for unemployed or underemployed farmworkers and their qualified dependents. It provides training and necessary supportive services that leads to full-time, year-round unsubsidized employment.

In 18 months, Victor earned his GED and a vocational certificate in barbering. Today, he owns his own business, BigBoyz Barbershop in Fort Pierce, and has plans to open a second business. Knowing firsthand how a mentor’s kindness, generosity and faith can change a life, Victor encourages others to enroll in the Farmworkers Career Development Program and pursue their dreams through education. “When I was at the bottom and didn’t have money for class materials, IRSC LEAP Program Coordinator Jenny Champagne took me to buy clothes, and I’ll never forget that,’’ Victor says. “All I needed was one more chance and she gave that to me.’’

“Missing home is a hardship; however, the benefits have been indescribable.”

— Savanna Best, Cape Town, South Africa

When Savanna Best — who calls Cape Town, South Africa, home — completed her high school education she knew that she wanted to pursue her college degree and swimming career in America, a country well known for helping student athletes achieve their best. Savanna then found Indian River State College, where she was attracted to its unrivaled record of national championship titles and a deep-rooted commitment to student success.

A member of the women’s swim team and a 2019 inductee into the Nu Iota Chapter of the Phi Theta Kappa National Honors Society, Savanna says the opportunities that IRSC provides allows her to achieve the best possible results both in the pool and in her studies. “I am so blessed to be part of the swim team. I am excited to be able to tell people I went
to IRSC.”


First generation college student Cristian Rios earned an Associate of Arts degree with highest honors from IRSC in May 2018, just weeks before graduating summa cum laude from Okeechobee High School. That year, he was one of only 106 students in the nation recognized with the prestigious and highly competitive Jack Kent Cooke Foundation College Scholarship, which provided funds to help him complete his bachelor’s degree at MIT.

Cristian began his affiliation with IRSC while in middle school through the Take Stock in Children program administered through the IRSC Foundation. Take Stock in Children is a comprehensive program that helps at-risk, low-income children succeed by providing college scholarships, volunteer mentors, student advocates/case managers, early intervention and long-term support.

“IRSC pushed me beyond my limits and has shown me what I can do as I prepare myself for rigorous academics that I will have at a college like MIT.”

— Cristian Rios, Okeechobee

“I always wanted to become a welder. I just want to create something.”

— Nelly Spengler, Fort Pierce

After a career as a marine biologist, researcher, diver and consultant, Nelly Spengler retired in 2011. She traveled extensively before settling back at her home in Florida, spending much of her time at the gym — upwards of four hours each day. Then one of her friends encouraged her to try to learn something new.

Growing up in the Philippines, Nelly had always wanted to be a welder, but there were no programs for women at that time. With time on her hands, she took her friend’s advice and entered the welding program at Indian River State College. In August 2019, at age 56, she earned her Applied Welding Technology certification and is now a lab assistant for the IRSC program. She also works for 772 Welding, and in her free time uses her new skills to create art — including a peacock that was part of the 2019 Procession of the Species in downtown Fort Pierce.

Martin County resident Delaney Ridgway is a 2013 dual-enrollment graduate of IRSC and South Fork High School. After high school graduation, she attended University of Central Florida where she earned a B.S. in elementary education. After working briefly at a charter school, Delaney took an interest in personal training and worked at Orange Theory Fitness.

In 2018, Delaney was sidelined with an ACL tear. Six months of physical therapy followed her surgery. As she recovered, she observed the physical therapy process closely and began to consider a new career path.

Light on cash, but rich with motivation, Delaney enrolled in IRSC’s Physical Therapist Assistant program. She appreciates the college’s reasonably priced, small classes and proximity to home and work. She is a physical therapy technician at Premier Physical Therapy in Port St. Lucie and expects to grow with the company after she completes the IRSC program.

“The IRSC program was less than half the cost of private school, and with the scholarship I received, there’s barely any cost to attend. After my parents spent all that money at UCF, it was wonderful to come here and have almost all of it paid for.”

— Delaney Ridgway, Hobe Sound


“Everyone at IRSC genuinely cares about you and your success. You gain confidence and you grow exponentially as both a person and a professional.”

— Robert Catapano, Vero Beach

Robert Catapano graduated Sebastian River High School and made plans to study at IRSC. At the time, he didn’t realize how he would develop a passion for not-for-profits that would guide his involvement in collegiate extracurricular activities and eventually define his career.

At IRSC, Robert earned his associate degree in business administration with honors in 2015 and a bachelor’s degree in applied science in organizational management in 2018. He served as president of the Sigma Beta Delta Honor Society and founded two not-for-profit groups — one dedicated to educating the youth of Indian River County and another that mobilizes IRSC alumni as volunteer consultants who help build capacity at small Indian River County not-for-profit organizations.

Today, Robert is a manager with Boys and Girls Club of Indian River County. He says there is nothing more rewarding than working with children. He plans to continue his journey as a leader in the organization, and eventually take on an executive role, possibly in the national system.


“What I enjoyed most about the Blackburn is that once you step into the classroom you’re considered family... I wouldn’t be where I am without the assistance of the staff and faculty at the Blackburn.”

— Rayvionna Taylor, Fort Pierce

Rayvionna Taylor completed her Nursing Assistant certification tuition free in April 2019 as a student of the Lincoln Park Career Pathways Initiative — a collaborative effort between IRSC, the St. Lucie EDC, CareerSource Research Coast, and TCMA — sponsored by Allegany Franciscan Ministries through the Common Good Initiative. The program seeks to train Fort Pierce residents in growing and expanding fields, helping them to embark on lifelong careers.

Throughout the eight-week program, Rayvionna studied with IRSC nursing faculty in state-of-the-art facilities in the IRSC Blackburn Building. They helped her become “interview ready” and provided her guidance with employment applications. Upon completion of the program, Rayvionna interviewed with a physician’s practice. She landed that job, and she still holds it today.

Rayavionna’s educational quest continues. She is back at IRSC working on an Associate of Arts degree in health science in preparation to become a nurse and further her career.

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