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Victoria Akiki: Speaking Up, Moving Forward

May 23, 2024

Just two weeks before commencement, Victoria Akiki of New Windsor, spoke at the SUNY Orange Foundation’s Honoring Women in STEM Leadership Awards event on May 9. She first shared a research project previously presented this Spring and then a personal story that ended with the attendees on their feet for a roaring standing ovation. As the wave of appreciation washed over her, Akiki appeared visibly moved.

“When she spoke, you could hear a pin drop, and when she finished, the audience rose and erupted into applause. It took so much courage for her to talk about her experience,” shared event organizer and Executive Director of the SUNY Orange Foundation, Dawn Ansbro.

Asked how the response made her feel, Akiki said, “I was so surprised and thought, ‘This is crazy,’ but I felt so supported and appreciated. School has been the constant in my life.”

Akiki’s speech included insight into the homelessness she and her family experienced that began when she was a high school freshman and continued as she attended three different high schools: Crestview High School in Crestview, Fla.; Clarence Center High School in Clarence, N.Y.; and finally, Cornwall Central High School in New Windsor. She doubted the opportunity to attend college would ever arise.

Seeking a student speaker for the event, Ansbro contacted Honors Program Coordinator, Professor Elaine Torda and learned Victoria’s family had some financial hardships and that she would likely view the request to speak as an honor. Not only did Akiki accept the invitation to speak, but she arrived at the event early and helped with set up.

“I’ve come a long way, not just academically, but also personally,” Akiki shared. “I know I don’t present as someone who has been through the struggle of homelessness. It is more common than not, and I want to bring awareness to the stigma of not telling anyone. I probably would have received more help and resources if I had spoken up.

“In my senior year of high school, my guidance counselor, Gerri Smith, spoke with me about many opportunities, including the Honors Program at SUNY Orange and an automatic admissions event. I had a 94 average and received scholarships from St. Luke’s Montefiore, the President’s Scholarship, the James Ottaway Jr. Scholarship and enrolled,” Akiki explained.

During that first year at SUNY Orange, Akiki started as an English major before changing her focus to dentistry and the Biology Department. She was inducted as a member of Phi Theta Kappa, the national honor society for students at two-year colleges and universities; became a member of the Honors Program, and joined the Biology Club. Later, she became a member of the CSTEP program, a grant-funded opportunity program that provides academic services to underrepresented minorities and economically disadvantaged students studying in STEM fields and those that lead to New York state licensed professions. For the Honors Program, she is an Advisory Board Member and student recruiter. 

This past April, she presented “Dental Therapists: Advancing Oral Healthcare Access in Underserved Communities,” at the Northeast Regional Honors Council event in Albany. She explained the role of dental therapists in the United States and whether they will lead to a future of increased quality oral healthcare access in vulnerable groups. 

“This was a rewarding and memorable event,” she stated. “So much work and effort went into the research. Over 60 people attended, and that (public speaking) was a skill I developed through SUNY Orange and the Honors Program. I was extremely shy when I started classes, and Honors is discussion-based, so it helped me in many ways.”

Akiki was recognized at the SUNY Orange Convocation Ceremony by the Honors Program, the Biology Club and received the Helen K. and George R. (Bucky) Bartlett, Jr. Memorial Scholarship.

As for her future plans, she explained, “I will be recruiting for the Honors Program this summer before I leave for the University of Buffalo. My long-term goal is to specialize in oral surgery.”

 “I know Victoria will be successful. I am impressed by her calm, quiet presence and kind demeanor. I am proud and pleased we were able to give her the start she needed,” Ansbro added.

“The SUNY Orange Honors Program is very proud of Victoria and her development over the last two years,” Torda said. “She has grown from a quiet, shy person to a more confident young woman thoughtfully pursuing her goals. She became a leader within the program, always willing to help her peers, plan events for the group, or participate in a discussion. She takes advantage of every opportunity presented to her as a chance to learn and grow. We wish her well as she moves forward to pursue her dreams.”

Akiki recognizes and thanks members of the SUNY Orange faculty for their support, including Torda; Biology Professor, Dr. Walter Jahn; Instructor of Biology, Nicole Rodstrom; and Assistant Professor of Biology, Monty Vacura. “Without all my professors and the Honors Club, I would not be who I am today,” she said.