USF campus presents degrees to 2013 graduates

rdymond@bradenton.comDecember 16, 2013 

PALMETTO -- Her sister, Giselle, couldn't say "Crystal" growing up and called her "Tita" instead.

Crystal "Tita" Rodriguez, now 25, grew up in Bradenton in a large extended family and attended Bayshore High School with a desire to do something special with her life, her family said.

"Tita was always pushing herself to do more," said Crystal's mother, Maritza Rodriguez. "I saw a teacher in her from a young age."

A 2006 Bruin graduate, Crystal is fulfilling her mother's prediction for being a teacher and Sunday became the first member of her family to graduate from college.

Now known as Crystal Zinn after she recently married, Zinn nee Rodriguez walked across the stage Sunday at the Bradenton Area Convention Center to receive her bachelor's degree in education from the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee along with 108 others who came for diplomas. An estimated crowd of 250 people watched the ceremony.

Zinn, who served an internship at Bashaw Elementary School on Morgan Johnson Road, will start her teaching career Monday as a Manatee County School District substitute.

"My mother is more excited than me," Zinn said with a laugh before Sunday's graduation. "She feels

I did something extraordinary."

Mom long ago earned her daughter's respect by continually striving at Health Care America until she now manages five offices, Zinn said. Her father, Antonio Rodriguez, is on disability and can't work, Zinn added. The family lives on 30th Street West in Bradenton.

Remarkable story

Many members of the family, including grandmother, Marta, were at the Bradenton Area Convention Center holding signs to celebrate Zinn's achievement.

Zinn's story is especially remarkable because she was terrified of mathematics until about two years ago, which is a rough phobia for a teacher.

"Fractions, decimals, algebra, geometry -- it all scared me," Zinn said Sunday.

Zinn's attitude toward math was changed by USF Sarasota-Manatee teacher Patricia Hunsader in her class, "Teaching Math." Hunsader also invited Zinn to participate in a math club she sponsored on campus.

Zinn realized irrational fear, not an inability to figure math out, had caused her panic.

"She helped me overcome my fear of math and now I really like it," Zinn said.

Hunsader's teaching gift is something Zinn wants to pass on.

"I want to inspire a child," Zinn said.

Award winners

• Miriam "Mimi" Fleck, 26, of Sarasota inspired so many students she was honored with the coveted Golden Bull Service and Outstanding Leadership Award Sunday. The Golden Bull is presented to a student who has demonstrated excellence in leadership activities.

In her time at USF, Fleck was a member of a number of organizations: Bulls Mentoring Bulls, The Creativity Club, Innovators Guiding New Ideas Through Education, Educator's Alliance and Promoting, Recruiting, and Increasing Diverse Educators, to name a few.

"I like to get involved," said Fleck in an understatement.

• Sarasota's J.D. Lotz, a U.S. Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq, was named Outstanding Graduate. He graduated with an overall grade point average of 3.83.

• Developmental psychology professor Elaine Augustine was named Outstanding Professor of the fall term.

"I've seen students interact with her and she listens to their concerns," said Jane Rose, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

"I'm very excited about teaching and I think that comes through for my students," Augustine said. "I love my job."

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @ RichardDymond.

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