Alumni Share Career Advice at Ukuu Series Industry Panel

Group of students and alumni that attended the panel discussion

Three alumni representing different career fields—media, engineering and medicine—returned to campus to share their career journeys with students on April 5. Kamey Gomez ’19, Hervens Jeannis ’09 and Jocellie Marquez ’08 shared their experiences and expertise in the Ukuu Series Industry Panel, a joint program of the Barner-McDuffie House and the Syracuse University Office of Multicultural Advancement (SUMA).

The Ukuu Series, which focuses on career exploration and development, is one of five program initiatives of the Barner-McDuffie House created by Marissa Willingham, program manager, and launched in the 2023-24 academic year. The Industry Panel was second in the Ukuu Series jointly sponsored with SUMA during Spring semester, following a Conversation with Ronald Taylor ’15, G’16, an accomplished educator who is now part of Tik Tok’s global youth safety team, on January 29.

“Ukuu is the Swahili word for greatness,” says Willingham. “This series is about career development and helping bring the greatness out in students.”

The panelists were chosen by Willingham, who previously spent 16 years working in the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and Maria J. Lopez ’05, G’12, assistant director of scholarship programs in the Office of Multicultural Advancement, to reflect career segments popular among students.

Gomez, who earned her bachelor’s in communications and rhetorical studies, is a multimedia personality, influencer and host who has worked with companies including Paramount, Revolt TV, BET, Roc Nation and iHeartMedia. The proud Latina is also a clothing designer and philanthropist who supports low-income New York City families through the Kamey Gomez Foundation. She is passionate about using her versatility, distinct personality and style to inspire and captivate audiences around the country to create impact.

Dr. Jeannis, an alumnus of the Our Time Has Come (OTHC) Scholarship program, is a systems engineer at the Boeing Company, where he is part of the digital engineering team. In addition to earning a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from Syracuse, he holds a master’s in systems engineering from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and a doctorate in rehabilitation science from the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Marquez is a surgeon currently completing a burn surgery fellowship at the Nassau University Medical Center, to be followed with a plastic surgery fellowship beginning in July 2024. After graduating cum laude with a degree in chemistry from Syracuse, she earned a medical degree at SUNY Stony Brook School of Medicine. She remained at Stony Brook to complete her general surgery residency, participated in a two-year research fellowship in plastic surgery and obtained an MBA.

As an undergraduate, Dr. Marquez says she attended similar panel discussions and lectures hosted by the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Program and the WellsLink Leadership program. “Seeing professionals that looked like me sharing their stories and experiences on how they got to where they were in their careers, reminded me to be intentional on building the future I envisioned for myself,” she says. “So, when I received the invitation to participate in the Industry Panel event, I knew I wanted to give the same kind of support and positive energy back to the current students that was given to me when I was in their shoes.” 

Through a series of questions posed by moderator Ryan Nkongyu ’25, an OTHC Scholar, the panelists shared their own career journeys and offered practical advice to the students in attendance, including dealing with the barriers they’d faced. 

“Becoming a surgeon from a traditionally underrepresented background often means you may be the only person that looks like you in your premed classes, medical school cohort and even residency/fellowship training,” Marquez told them. “It can be very isolating, especially when combined with the stress that comes with a rigorous and competitive career. It is important to network and engage with people who can help navigate through those peaks and valleys.”

Willingham believes that the open discussion that took place occurred in part because of the event’s location at the Barner-McDuffie House. “Students and alumni feel comfortable here, an authenticity to be themselves, even if there are administrators in the building listening,” she says. “As a result, the conversation and answers given are very real and the students appreciate that.”

Nkongyu, a communications and rhetorical studies major, says he appreciated hearing the alumni remark on the ways their time, experience, and resources at Syracuse University have served them over the years. “They also talked about the challenges they faced as people of color in the workplace and advised us to create opportunities for ourselves, urging us to use those opportunities to help others,” he says. “They advised us to network, not only for professional reasons, but also to build lasting relationships.”

Jayliss Agosto, a graduate student in broadcast and digital journalism, already has a head start, having previously connected with Gomez as a mentor to her own career goals of becoming a multimedia journalist and host. “Her commitment to excelling as a journalist and host while also making impactful contributions to underserved communities perfectly mirrors my own journey and ongoing goals,” says Agosto, who appreciated hearing insights from the entire panel. “I learned that success often follows a winding path, but the consistency of effort is important. Understanding that pursuing one's dreams entails sacrifices, including parting ways with certain relationships or comforts, was a powerful realization.”

The panelists emphasis on self-care struck a chord for Chelsea Reeves ’24, a psychology and political science major and OTHC Scholar. “I appreciated that they all expressed the importance of knowing when to rest and prioritize the things that are in alignment with your own career goals, not over-extending yourself too much for others before you have your own life together,” she says.

But mostly, she just appreciated their presence.By just telling their stories, the three guests were able to inspire others and give invaluable information that we wouldn’t have otherwise known,” she says. “Coming back to where it all started and remembering where they came from is going to help propel those behind them forward.”