Cornell or Bust: Valencia Grad Heads to Grad School to Study Public Health

Gloria Coicou sounds like your typical American success story.

Last spring, she graduated magna cum laude from UCF and this fall will start classes at to Cornell University – one of the nation’s Ivy League schools – to study for dual master’s degrees in public administration and health-care administration.

But four years ago, she was a lonely, pregnant woman, uncertain what her future would be and scared about the idea of supporting a child on her own.

That’s when she registered for classes at Valencia.“I would not be who I am today without Valencia,” says Gloria.


Gloria Coicou
Gloria Coicou

Like many students, Gloria took a long and varied path to Valencia. After graduating from high school in Rockland County, N.Y., Gloria went off to college at the University of Maryland. Her goal? To become a doctor. It was, in reality, her father’s dream.

But Gloria failed chemistry the first semester and the next semester didn’t get better. After flunking out, she worked a few part-time jobs, took a few classes at a nearby community college, but the spark for college had burned out. So she headed back home to New York and worked for the county government for three years. There, she seemed to be finding herself, with a good job and a new boyfriend. But when the relationship turned abusive, Gloria quit her job and moved to Florida to get away from him.

“I needed to start a new life,” she says, “but he ended up following me down here.”

Over the coming months, she struggled to get out of that relationship and finally did, with the help of Harbor House and the Orlando Police Department. A few months later, she discovered she was pregnant. “I had a conversation with myself,” recalls Gloria, who was working as a technician at a local hospital.  “How am I going to provide for this child? What values am I going to teach this child? I realized that it was no longer about me. Since that day, it has always been about my son.”

Interested in nursing, Gloria earned her A.A. at Valencia – where she learned from Prof. Jackie Zuromski how to write a college research paper, a critical skill that she later learned many of her classmates at UCF hadn’t mastered. She also found an encouraging and welcome community at Valencia, where instructors including Zuromski and humanities instructor Jeannette Griffith took this single mom under their wings.

At UCF, she was accepted into the nursing school and, she felt, finally was on her way. Yet, after a year in the program, she was dealt another blow. She failed a course – and was dismissed from the program. “It took me a while to swallow that thought – that nursing wasn’t for me,” says Gloria.

But Gloria didn’t quit. “I changed my major to health-care administration and that’s where I flourished.”

Active in student organizations, she helped organize a hypertension awareness program for a senior-citizen community near UCF. She also created and piloted a mentorship program for high school students through UCF’s College of Health and Public Affairs. And in May, she graduated magna cum laude, with a 3.86 GPA and a 4.0 GPA in her major. Just as she was poised to apply for grad school at UCF, she went to a national conference in Chicago, where she happened to have a conversation with an official from Cornell University’s health-care administration program. The woman encouraged Gloria to apply to Cornell, so Gloria returned to Orlando, applied to Cornell, took the Graduate Record Examination and, within a month, she’d been accepted.

Now she’s preparing to close up her apartment in Orlando and move with her son to bucolic, upstate New York. While she’s looking for day-care providers and excited about the next phase of her life, she is grateful for the opportunities – and encouragement – she found at Valencia.

Gloria and her son
Gloria and her son

“I am so grateful for what I learned at Valencia,” says Gloria. “Valencia was truly the steppingstone and laid the foundation for my time management, for studying, for everything. It prepared me for UCF and then later for grad school. I know a lot of people who use Valencia as a steppingstone and they just run through it. They don’t realize the real and true impact that Valencia had on them.”

And she wants to pay thanks to instructors like Jackie Zuromski and Jeannette Griffith, who took time to help a confused young woman.
Griffith invited Gloria to her own home. “She knew I was having a really hard time; I was literally selling my son’s old toys and clothes to pay my rent. And she offered me valuable advice and played a motherly role,” says Gloria. “At one point, it was getting cold and my son didn’t have a coat, so she dipped into her pocket and bought my son a coat, some new socks and a couple of hats. Things like that I will never forget.”

Likewise, Zuromski not only pushed Gloria to become a better writer, but she was always available for advice and help, even after Gloria graduated.

Zuromski remembers Gloria as a motivated student, who asked a lot of questions and used the feedback to improve her writing skills. “Imagine my delight to see just how far she—and herwriting—had come when I read her grad school essay,” said Zuromski. “I was not surprised to hear she was accepted at Cornell. I have been and remain very proud of her.”

Now as she moves on to an Ivy League school, Gloria urges other Valencia students to push themselves. “I know what the struggle is,” she says, “but a lot of people don’t realize their potential. An AA isn’t the end point. I encourage people to keep going forward.”