First Opportunity Scholars graduate

Briona Perry (left) and Elle Fitzpatrick are the first students to graduate from the Opportunity Scholars Program. They both earned bachelor's degrees in biology. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Briona Perry (left) and Elle Fitzpatrick are the first students to graduate from the Opportunity Scholars Program. They both earned bachelor’s degrees in biology. (Photo by August Jennewein)

It’s on to bigger dreams for biology graduates Briona Perry and Elle Fitzpatrick. As the first two students to graduate from the University of Missouri–St. Louis’ Opportunity Scholars Program, they exemplify how access to education transforms lives and offers career growth and opportunity for students who might not otherwise have been able to afford college.

Both Perry and Fitzpatrick had a grandparent in need of medical care that tied up family finances. The scholarship offered each of them four years at UMSL, all expenses paid (tuition, fees, housing, a meal plan, books and a laptop), as long as they maintained high academic standing.

The Opportunity Scholars Program began in 2011 through a partnership with UMSL and Emerson, which contributed $1.65 million in funding and internships. AT&TBellwether Foundation, Energizer, Enterprise, Wells Fargo and David and Thelma Steward of World Wide Technology provided additional support.

Now, the two young women begin their career paths – pharmacy and forensics – with excellent academic records, numerous extracurricular leadership experiences and zero debt.

Briona Perry has reached checkpoint No. 2.

“No. 1 was graduating from high school,” she said, “No. 2 from college and No. 3 is four years from now when I graduate from pharmacy school.”

This August, she will start a four-year doctoral pharmacy program at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in the Chicago area.

Perry set herself on the path to become her neighborhood’s pharmacist when she was a senior in high school and became a pharmacy technician at Walgreens, a job she maintained throughout her undergraduate career at UMSL. She chose to study pharmacy after witnessing her grandmother’s illness in 2005.

“I saw my mother really step up and take the initiative to learn about the prescriptions my grandmother was on and learn about various things the doctors were doing and administering,” she said. “She ensured that my grandmother had the best care. At the time I was young, but that really sparked my interest.”

When Perry wasn’t working, she was all over campus. She helped in Robert Ricklef’s lab with research on malaria parasites in avian populations. She was also vice president of the Hispanic Latino Association, a lead ambassador for University Events, a tutor at Multicultural Student Services and a member of the Associated Black Collegians as well as the Biology Club.

“I put everything in my calendar,” Perry said. “I just tried to cram it all in.”

Diversity and meeting so many different people is what she said made her time at UMSL. While Perry will miss the community, she’s excited about the next steps in life at pharmacy school, which she plans to pay for with student loans.

“But that’s the thing about the Opportunity Scholars,” she said. “Paying back undergrad loans in addition to grad loans isn’t a concern for me. I truly am blessed to have received this scholarship.”

Elle Fitzpatrick discovered her dream career.

“I want to be a biology crime lab specialist,” she said.

But Fitzpatrick wasn’t always so certain about her future job. When she came to UMSL, she knew she loved science but hadn’t settled on any particular occupation. Like many college students, a general education course opened her curiosity to a new field. She discovered a fascination for criminology and criminal justice.

After consulting advisers and professors, she found that forensics folded her love of science in neatly with her interest in the justice system. That led her to seek out an internship at the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s forensics lab, an opportunity her scholarship gave her access to.

“Without it, I would have never been able to meet Harold Messler [former forensic scientist and chief criminalist for the SLMPD] at UMSL and get my internship.”

She learned about the different departments of a crime lab and how to process and examine evidence.

“There were a couple of times I got to work directly with the evidence,” she said. “Sometimes I would be in the bio DNA lab or working forensics firearms or drug chemistry.”

Fitzpatrick liked the hands-on environment of her future work.

On campus, she was president of Colleges Against Cancer as well as the National Society of Leadership and Success (Sigma Alpha Pi). She was also a lead ambassador for University Events (where she met Messler) and joined the Pierre Laclede Honors College Student Association, Biology Club and University Program Board.

“Because of OSP I was able to get so much more out of college,” she said. “I got to live on campus but not worry about student loans. It was a good way to take a lot of the headache out of starting college and going to school.”

Now she is applying to UMSL for graduate school and wants to study cell and molecular biology while working a graduate assistantship. It’s the next step before hopefully working a crime lab in St. Louis.

“I’m really grateful,” said Fitzpatrick, “just really, really grateful. I can’t say thank you enough.”
The UMSL Experience

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