Category Archives: Success Stories

Graduate finds strength through bodybuilding

A light-skinned female with long pony-tail and in gym clothes stands with large weights

Alexandra Dunek ’14 (professional and technical communication) has been through a lot mentally, emotionally and physically.

Now, the 27-year-old deaf bodybuilder and fitness writer from Mount Laurel, N.J., is sharing her story of struggle and triumph to help inspire others who may be going through trying times of their own.

Through her Instagram account (@TipsFromAFitChick), as well as other media outlets, she is using her voice and her story to advocate for the deaf community and to encourage anybody facing challenges in their own lives to persevere.

Stronger, a short documentary released in December 2016, is one of many recent media projects to chronicle Dunek’s journey overcoming cancer, depression and an eating disorder, as well as her rise in competitive bodybuilding. The film, directed by Eliu Cornielle, with the help of director of photography Drew Saracco, is available on Vimeo.

Dunek was born in 1989 with germ cell sarcoma, a rare cancer that is most common in multiple births.

“My mother had trouble getting pregnant and miscarried before I was born, so she took fertility drugs and ended up with triplets,” said Dunek. “She was supposed to have quadruplets, but the fourth baby didn’t develop properly and instead became a tumor attached to me.”

By the age of 2, Dunek had undergone six rounds of intensive chemotherapy and won her battle with cancer. As a result of the chemo, however, she lost most of her hearing and suffered damage to her vision.

Attending RIT wasn’t always a part of Dunek’s plan.

“My mom was in a really bad car accident my senior year of high school, and I picked up some bad habits while trying to cope with her recovery,” Dunek said. “I was depressed and I started drinking and smoking regularly, and my eating habits were really unhealthy.”

Dunek was attending a local community college at the time but dropped out during her first year. Once her mother made a full recovery, she encouraged Dunek to continue her education, this time at RIT.

“I made a deal with her and agreed to visit one college of her choice,” said Dunek. “We visited RIT in spring of 2010 and I immediately fell in love with the way the school took the deaf and hearing worlds and combined them into one.”

It was during her time at RIT that Dunek became focused on her fitness and began bodybuilding. “I needed something to help me get out of my depression, and I chose the gym,” Dunek said.

Athleticism runs in Dunek’s family. Her father, Ken Dunek, was a Philadelphia Eagle during the 1981 Super Bowl.

Following graduation, Dunek began prepping for a competition of her own. She competed in her first bodybuilding national qualifier in June 2015 and placed second.

“It is important for me to tell my story,” said Dunek. “Now I have the opportunity to come forward and share my journey. I just became a National Academy of Sports Medicine certified personal trainer so that I can open my own gym and inspire others to develop healthy lifestyles of their own, no matter their circumstance.”

 
 

What’s next for members of RIT/NTID’s class of 2017?

group of graduates wearing cap and gown

NTID has a strong history of successful employment outcomes for our graduates. For the past several years, 94% of RIT/NTID graduates who have sought employment have found a job within a year. This year’s graduates are off to a good start—a number of them already have jobs lined up, and others are planning to attend graduate school. We congratulate these students and the entire Class of 2017! Check out what's next for some of our recent RIT/NTID graduates.

Balancing Act

Smiling female student with long brown hair and glasses standing in fron of a wall

Knowledge of Excel and general ledger skills allow Natalya Dmitriyeva to accomplish her monthly goal of balancing the books. Dmitriyeva, from Odessa, Ukraine, graduated May 2017 with a bachelor's degree in accounting. She already is working full time as an accounting specialist at Visions Hotels, a hotel management company in Rochester, New York. More

 

 

 

 

 

Deaf RIT graduate defines strength in the face of adversity

Amie Sankoh in a long-sleeved light color top, jeans and ankle boots sits w/sculpture of a roaring tiger with trees behind her.

Amie Sankoh has overcome many obstacles in her life—and her walk across the stage during this weekend’s commencement ceremony for RIT’s College of Science will mark the beginning of a new chapter.

The biochemistry student, who is deaf and supported by the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, will begin studying in August for her Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. One day she hopes to use her expertise to conduct groundbreaking research on vaccine development and disease prevention.

As a young student in the west African country of Sierra Leone, Sankoh struggled due to her deafness and a lack of resources. Her parents, refusing to accept failure, made the bold decision to send their 12-year-old daughter to the United States where she would live with her father’s best friend and his family, attend better schools and ultimately gain more opportunities.

Sankoh’s breakthrough came in high school, where her love for mathematics and chemistry flourished. She also learned sign language, which enabled her to break down communication barriers with other deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

“Once I discovered my love for math, which was very visual, I knew that I could do anything with my life,” she said. “My mind was set on attending RIT/NTID because I knew that it was the right fit for me.”

Throughout her academic career, Sankoh participated in internships at top companies like Dow Chemical Co. in Pennsylvania and credits NTID faculty and staff for teaching her how to strengthen her communication skills, advocate for herself and develop her love for Deaf culture.

“My parents have always had very high expectations of their children, and they greatly value education,” she said. “NTID has given me the confidence to believe in myself and affirm that I can make it, especially in a tough science field. I’ve learned how to work with people who are hearing and deaf, study alongside faculty researchers and sharpen my interview skills. I just know that I’m going to make it. I work really hard.”

At NTID, Sankoh was a member of the Organization of African Students (OAS), Ebony Club, the Student Life Team and supported Spectrum, the LGBTIQ and straight alliance. And in March, Sankoh also become a U.S. citizen.

“Amie is an amazing person who exemplifies how to grow oneself,” said Joseph Johnston, director of RIT’s Center for Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution. “Amie’s resiliency and optimistic attitude provided such benefits to herself and the RIT community. She is a very special human being and is one of my favorite students I have ever had the pleasure to work with.”

Sankoh added, “Life is hard and we all have challenges. I’ve fallen and have gotten back up every time. I’m proof that there is always a way to overcome challenges.”

At the University of Tennessee, Sankoh will have 24/7 access to interpreting and notetaking services and will also receive a stipend to conduct her research. She said although her father is somewhat shocked and surprised at her achievements, she knew, deep down, that he expected nothing less.

“My father is so impressed by everything that I’ve been able to accomplish. And I’m so proud that he will be able to watch me cross that stage and move one step closer to my achieving my dream.”

Winners of RIT/NTID’s Next Big Idea announced

Chris Wagner, Wade Keller, Hans Khols and Gerry Buckley together in front of brick wall with a check.

BAGMAG, a hands-free solution for making skateboards more easily portable on the back of a backpack, took home the $5,000 first prize in the 2017 Next Big Idea competition at Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

Judges from the competition’s sponsor, ZVRS, a video relay service headquartered in Clearwater, Florida, reviewed the projects of the four team finalists, asked questions and selected first, second and third place winners:

$5,000 First Place: BAGMAG, uses a strong magnet inserted on the backpack that connects to a strong magnet affixed to the bottom of the skateboard and eliminates the need to remove the backpack and use straps to affix the skateboard.

$3,000 Second Place: ASL Storyteller, an interactive app that offers sign language to babies, both hearing and deaf, to help with language development and creates a richer environment for signing babies.

$2,000 Third Place: Expect Zone, a rear-view mirror with three flashing lights that lets deaf or hard-of-hearing drivers know when an ambulance, police car or fire engine is coming near. It flashes more quickly as the emergency vehicle gets closer.     

Four teams of deaf and hard-of-hearing students from Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf went head-to-head April 26 during The Next Big Idea Competition, a ”Shark Tank” style business competition.

The contest is an annual event where teams of students combine skills related to their individual majors to create innovative products, technology or businesses. Teams work with mentors on their projects and compete before judges for cash prizes. This year marks the sixth anniversary of The Next Big Idea competition.

Team members are:

ASL Storyteller—Julie Love, a Graphic Design major from Riverside , California, and Logan Lugo, an International Business major from Columbus, Ohio.

BAGMAG—Hans Khols , an Industrial Design major from Boston, Massachusetts, and Wade Kellard, a Mechanical Engineering Technology major from Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Expect Zone— Amelia Hamilton, a New Media Marketing major from Austin, Texas, and Tanner Ketchum, an Accounting Technology major from Austin, Texas.

VIGN— Tobin Zolkowski, a Communication and Criminal Justice major from Neenah, Wisconsin, Iswor Ghimire, a Global Computing major from Nepal, Mohd Afifi Ishak, an Industrial Design major from Malaysia, and Jose Lopez, an Applied Computer Technology major from Los Angeles, California. Vign, described as a “Netflix for deaf people,” is designed to stream program content in sign language.

 “The Next Big Idea competition is the culmination of a tremendous amount of hard work, creativity and innovation on the part of these student inventors and entrepreneurs,” said Gerry Buckley, NTID president and RIT vice president and dean. “We have seen some amazing products and services start in this competition and move into production. We thank ZVRS for their steadfast support since the beginning of the Next Big Idea, and are grateful for the belief they have in our students.” 

Knowing the Basics Pays Off

Student with baseball cap, mustache and blue shirt posing at Job Fair

Connor Fitzgerald, a student from from Lennon, Michigan, had a co-op as a machinist at Gleason Works in Rochester, New York. He had learned the basics and more in his Computer Intergrated Machining Technology classes and was able to apply his knowledge to the job right away. Connor was offered a full-time job at Gleason Works, which he accepted. and he's on his way to a bright future. more

Four RIT Venture Creations companies advance to finals of Rochester Venture Challenge

Large screen showing triangular WAVIO device with young man in black t-shirt at right explaining what is on the screen.

Four clients of the Venture Creations Business Incubator at Rochester Institute of Technology have advanced to the final round of the 2017 Rochester Venture Challenge business competition. The four companies will compete against each other and a fifth Rochester, N.Y.-based company—one of which will receive $25,000 in cash when the winner is announced during the Celebration of Entrepreneurship Luncheon on April 27 at Hyatt Regency Hotel Rochester. Cash and prizes will also be presented to the runners-up. The competition is hosted by High Tech Rochester.

Empire Medicinals, founded by RIT alumnus Qiaosong George Zheng ’15 (mechanical engineering technology), Chris Carter, Scott Valpey and Dr. Xinmin Zheng, is a biotech manufacturer looking to advance health and well-being by modernizing traditional herbal medicines through the cultivation, extraction and packaging of USDA organic, natural medicinal supplements. Their first product, Lingzhi Essence, is a dietary supplement made from Ganoderma Lucidum mushrooms, which reportedly addresses issues varying from immune system modulation to relieving fatigue.

Hz Innovations, founded by Greyson Watkins and co-founded by Nick Lamb ’16 (electrical engineering) and Zach Baltzer ’16 (microelectronic engineering), is the maker of Wavio, a sound recognition system that is connected to a home Wi-Fi system. When a doorbell rings, smoke alarm chimes, water faucet drips or dog barks, for example, the unit notifies the homeowner via smartphone, smart watch, tablet or laptop, and identifies the sound. According to developers, virtually any sound deemed important to the homeowner can be recorded and “memorized” by the system during installation.

Hz Innovations also won the 2015 Next Big Idea competition hosted by RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf and sponsored by ZVRS.

MicroEra Power, founded by Eleanor Rusling and James Grieve, is developing efficient stationary generator systems to provide businesses with reliable back-up power and cost-effective on-site power generation. The system replaces a diesel back-up generator with a hybrid power system operating on inexpensive natural gas or propane.

ThermApparel, founded by Bradley Dunn ’15 (industrial design), Kurtis Kracke ’15 (industrial design) and Crystal Mendoza Paulin ’13 (biomedical engineering), is a lower cost, discreet, flexible garment that assists patients with multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, cerebral palsy or other conditions by regulating body temperature in hot weather.

The finalists were selected from a pool of 35 companies.

Another Venture creations clientImpact Earth, a zero-waste solutions company providing individuals, businesses and event planners with personalized training on sustainable practices, advanced to the semi-finals of the competition but was eliminated from the finals.

“RIT’s Venture Creations business incubator congratulates these companies on their advancement to the Rochester Venture Challenge finals, which is a testament to the hard work and dedication of these entrepreneurs, their employees and our incubator coaches,” said Richard Notargiacomo, incubator director. “While we certainly look forward to seeing how our companies perform during the competition, we are even more excited about what the future holds for these innovative companies and the entrepreneurs who are leading the way.”

Venture Creations was created in 2003 to establish an environment in which new and technologically innovative businesses could develop from the research conducted or sponsored by RIT, translating academic research into commercially viable high technology. The incubator was designed to provide services to incubating companies, facilitating the design, development, construction and operation of these companies for the purpose of advancing the educational and research missions of the university through the enhancement of faculty, student and staff involvement in high technology. It was also created to promote economic development and competitiveness in Monroe County and New York State by encouraging and facilitating the transfer of technology resources to the marketplace. Thirty-three companies have graduated from the incubator and together have created 466 jobs.

The Rochester Venture Challenge is a collaborative effort among community organizations High Tech Rochester, Digital Rochester, The Entrepreneurs Network, Excell Partners, Nazareth College School of Management, RIT and University of Rochester.

A Career in Biotechnology

Female student with wavy brown hair wearing a lab coat and smiling standing outside of a lab with lab tables and equipment in th

Michelle Mailhot, a lab science technology major from West Newfield, Maine, spent her summer on co-op at the Merck High-Throughput Screening Facility in North Wales, Pennsylvania. Her co-op, the LST program and all of the courses she has taken and the instrumentation skills she’s developed  will provide a strong foundation for her success in RIT’s College of Science.

Enjoying a Challenge

A student in a white shirt with beard and glasses sits by a computer with the screen off and other equipment.

Benjamin Polstra from Noblesville, Indiana, completed a summer co-op at GEICO in Chevy Chase, Maryland, that turned into a fulltime job. Polstra, who will graduate in sping 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in information technology, worked as a GEICO summer intern.

Polstra was responsible for a significant information technology (IT) business project—bigger than any project he had ever worked on before, and to complete it, he had to learn different tools and concepts along the way. He used his information technology skills on individual assignments and team projects, attended meetings and gave presentations. He was able to reach out to and receive mentoring from  team members and members of the IT management team. By the end of the summer, Polstra felt he had become a better developer with the increased confidence that came from handling a project of that size. He also learned how an insurance company runs and how they practice customer service.

He says that taking courses that taught the fundamental and advanced level of object-oriented programming, such as Java or C#, was valuable. The courses he took that teach client and server programming were necessary as well. The software design, principles and patterns, organizational behavior and apps development practices courses all were greatly helpful in his summer responsibilities, and taking on a leadership role gave him valuable experience in how to work with a team. He also learned that no matter where you work, asking a lot of questions is a must-have skill.

Polstra believes his degree will open doors to many opportunities. The coursework associated with it has prepared the fundamental bedrock, which he can use to demonstrate his knowledge of the IT field, and to work confidently with new concepts and ideas. He says that GEICO is the manifestation of how he’s been preparing himself; it has been changing, abandoning old traditions and embracing new ideas. The company has expanded its IT department rapidly to enable their growth spurt. That’s how he sees himself—growing rapidly to become not only a better IT person, but a more accomplished software developer.

Polstra offers the following advice for other students. “Don’t just work hard; play with what you like to do. If you are majoring in photography, play around with a camera.If computer science is your major, play around with a computer. Share with your friends and find mentors who can help you grow. You shouldn’t be discouraged by a challenge. Just try hard, and when you are successful, you will end up enjoying your success a lot more. Don’t think about grades so much because you will already excel at what you do, if you enjoy whatever you are doing.”