For the past six years, Miami University has honored 18 different alumni from the past nine years who have achieved success in their careers after graduation.
The program is based on the ‘30 under 30’ model and was created by the university’s alumni association to honor recent graduates who have attained success beyond their Miami educations.
This year, the honorees visited campus from Wednesday, Oct. 24 to Friday, Oct. 26 talking to students, meeting with organizations and catching up with faculty members before receiving awards from the university on Friday evening.
Four of the honorees, Fia Turczynewycz ‘05, M.A. ‘11, Kyle Denman ‘16, Jon Hamilton ‘10 and Leena Zahra ‘15 (the oldest, youngest and two honorees in between), talked to The Miami Student about how their Miami educations served as a basis in developing a sense of community, passion, resilience and confidence.
Fia Turczynewycz ‘05, M.A. ‘11
In 2011, Fia Turczynewycz became the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s sustainable communities advocate, a position she created from scratch. But, Fia did not come bounding out of the Phi Delt Gates on Slant Walk during her undergraduate years self-assured and confident that her life was on a path to success.
In fact, she almost didn’t graduate.
“Senior year we were going through our senior project,” Fia said. “And I distinctly remember just before Christmas break my professor pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re not going to graduate on time.’”
That year, one of Fia’s close friends died, and her grandmother was fighting for her life and eventually passed away.
Her professor, Bill Newell, and her advisor in Miami’s Western Program, Chris Meyers, did everything they could to help Fia walk on the graduation stage with her classmates.
“They fought for me,” she said. “And for them to be as supportive as they were — yeah, that was great, but then to have my fellow classmates who have already hit the deadlines and they’re smooth sailing say, ‘Fia what can we do to help?’”
They brought her dinner off-campus because they knew she wouldn’t have the time to cook or pick something up, and it was that community she had built in Western that made a real impact.
The support from her Western community saved Fia’s senior year and gave her the strength to keep going.
She started working for the Cincinnati Zoo after graduation and focused on advocating for the zoo’s community to become more eco-friendly. In 2009, she began working for AmeriCorps while attending graduate school at Miami, eventually traveling to Trinidad, Mongolia and Peru through the university’s global field program, Project Dragonfly.
Fia urges Miami students who are struggling to find their communities right now to keep at it.
“You have to take the time to invest in people,whether that’s a one-on-one lunch date, or a two hour conversation or a Skype call,” Fia said. “You have to work for it it’s not just going to fall in your lap. I think that’s the biggest thing: try to connect with people and try new things.”
Kyle Denman ‘16
Fashion designer Kyle Denman won Project Runway’s ReMake It Work grand prize in 2016 and was named Young Fashion Designer of the year in 2018 presented by the Fashion Designers & Craftmakers.
But two years ago, he didn’t even know how to sew.
As a student he worked with Opening Minds Through Art (OMA), a student organization that partners Oxford’s elderly with Miami students to make art projects.
“During my second year at Miami when I was an R.A. in Tappan, I was watching American Horror Story season three, and one of the characters screams, ‘Balenciaga,’ and I had no idea who or what that was,” he said. “So, I googled it, and I found out that Balenciaga is a fashion label, and Cristóbal Balenciaga is known as the greatest couturier of all time. That’s when I realized fashion can be art in addition to something wearable.”
At Miami, Kyle spent his time filling the margins of his political science notebooks with design sketches during class. There were so many sketches, in fact, that Kyle decided that law school was not going to be his future.
And so, he followed his gut. Kyle flew out to L.A. during the summer between his sophomore and junior years to apply to Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM), even as everyone around him — from professors to family members to friends — could not wrap their minds around this 180-degree course correction.
Kyle recently completed his first year at FIDM and is currently enrolled in its graduate program. He has since had the opportunity to work with Beyonce on her Coachella outfit.
“When I was making the leap from political science to fashion and design, I kept telling myself I would rather risk it than regret it,” Kyle said. “And I don’t regret any second of it. I would also tell [Miami students] one of my favorite quotes, which is, ‘life has so much to offer and you have so much to offer, too.’ A person’s relationship with life is reciprocal, and I would tell Miami students that they are valuable and that what they want to do is worth it and that their passion is worth it.”
Capt. Jonathan Hamilton ‘10
Capt. Jonathan “Jon” Hamilton always knew he wanted to be an officer in the armed services. When attending Miami, he served in the Army National Guard so he could attend college for free and took pride in his family’s military history.
“I’ve always been technically minded,” he said. “And I decided my major [in mechanical engineering] and stuck with it the whole time.”
Even though he remained dedicated both to his studies and his military duties throughout his undergraduate years, Jon struggled with self-doubt.
“Everybody feels that way,” he said. “During college everyone is always asking, ‘Can I compete with all of the people who seem so put-together?’”
Those people have doubts, too, Jon pointed out.
Eight years removed from graduation, working as an acquisitions officer in the U.S. Air Force at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, he’s managed to put some distance between his college doubts and his current achievements.
But, he insisted Miami students don’t need to have their lives completely figured out in order to be successful.
“You don’t have a crystal ball,” he said.“If you love what you do, then it usually works out.”
Leena Zahra ‘15
Leena Zahra is the community coordinator at the Karam Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Chicago that is focused on raising awareness about the Syrian humanitarian crisis in the U.S. and highlighting the successes of Syrian refugees who are trying to find better, safer lives for themselves and their families.
She knows aid workers are exposed to a lot of secondhand trauma, and that people whose careers are centered around humanitarian work need to take care of themselves. Despite the pressures of her job, she considers herself lucky to be able to speak to Syrian refugees and help them access resources that will change their lives.
“It helps me give the courage to keep moving forward,” she said. “I would encourage Miami students to try and make a local impact…applying what you do day to day can be life changing for your community.”
As a Syrian-American and an international studies graduate originally from Cleveland, Leena wasn’t always so certain of her role in life.
“I was very shy — so shy,” she said. “Even today I still am, but it’s important not to be afraid to mess up. I’ve had so many setbacks, but it’s how you respond to them where you’ll [see] growth.”
In her life beyond college, Leena recognizes that if she can’t take care of herself, she’ll never be able to help those around her who need her support.
“I love film,” Leena said. “It’s important to watch movies or read. I make time to watch ‘The Office’ or ‘Parks and Rec’ and [spend time] with my friends and family. You can’t help someone else unless you can help yourself.”
The Miami Student spoke with Fia, Kyle, Jon and Leena, but the full 2018 Miami University class of “18 of the Last 9” also included Katie Binns ‘09, Lindsey Bullinger ‘11, Ashleigh Dubois ‘13, Una Hrnjak-Hadziahmetovic ‘11, Heath Ingram ‘11, Emily Kuhn ‘09, Kerry McCormack ‘10, Kevin McLaughlin ‘09, Macy Mills ‘15, Laura Palmer Graham ‘15, Kevin Phaup ‘13, Daniela Pierre Bravo ‘12, Rithvik Venna ‘15 and Benjamin L. Walker ‘09.