If University of Houston-Victoria student Kemi Sowunmi Donahue ever doubts the path she is on in her life, she reminds herself of the time a few years ago when she found old notes from friends in high school while cleaning her house. Her friends poured out sensitive details about their lives, confided in Donahue and asked her for advice.

Donahue, who will graduate in May with a Master of Education in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, recently was named the Spring 2021 Outstanding Graduate Student for the UHV School of Education, Health Professions & Human Development. Anyssa Anne Cano of San Juan was named the Outstanding Undergraduate Student for the school.

Each semester, professors from UHV’s three schools select outstanding graduates to be honored during commencement. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, UHV has postponed its 2021 in-person graduation ceremonies until it is safe to gather. The university will host a virtual commencement ceremony at 10 a.m. May 15 that will be webcast on the UHV Facebook page and the university’s graduation website at www.uhv.edu/graduation.

“Kemi and Anyssa are two of our dedicated students who personify what it means to be a UHV Jaguar,” said Rachel Martinez, interim dean of the school. “We congratulate them on this well-deserved success. They should feel proud of their impressive achievements, and we wish them luck in their endeavors.”

Donahue is an eighth-grade literacy teacher and teaches Lead Worthy classes at James Bowie Middle School at Fort Bend Independent School District. She has been a teacher for 10 years. In 2001, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in criminal justice and political science from Sam Houston State University, and in 2008 received a master’s degree in criminology from the University of Houston-Clear Lake. She enrolled in graduate courses in 2013 at the University of Houston-Clear Lake and resumed classes in 2018 at UHV.

While she was working on her first master’s degree, Donahue became a substitute teacher at Fort Bend ISD. While subbing, a high school counselor pointed out to Donahue how students would reach out to her for help and advice, and asked Donahue if she would consider becoming a counselor. She also was asked that question by her church pastor. She enrolled in courses in 2018 at UHV and has since enjoyed teaching leadership courses to help students build leadership and social skills. She also enjoys being the kind of teacher with whom students will often stop by during breaks to talk. She is looking into becoming a school counselor and soon after obtaining her license to become a professional counselor. She still finds herself in awe of how her path to counseling seemingly started so early in her life.

“After I read those notes again, I just could not believe that they trusted me at that age with their thoughts and feelings, and felt that I could also help them,” she said. “It was like a sign saying, ‘This is what you are built and made for,’ and when I became a student at UHV, a lightbulb went on. The ideas I didn’t even know I had bottled up inside me started coming out.”

As someone who understands the importance of support, Donahue is especially grateful to her support system, including her husband, Gene; her parents; sister; brothers; friends; and each professor and adjunct faculty member she’s had at UHV. She is especially thankful to assistant professor Ronald Monachello and associate professor Wayne Smith, both UHV faculty members in professional counseling. She also would like to thank her colleagues, including Jennifer Johnson West, for their support and advice.

“Receiving this award was unexpected, but it is a blessing because every professor, friend and family member has helped me get to this path,” she said. “There are so many people walking around that don’t know their purpose or get off track in their life. I want to be that person to help students or clients get back on track and let them know that there is a purpose for their existence and they matter. Hearing those words do matter.”

Cano will graduate in May with her Bachelor of Science in early childhood through sixth grade. She is student-teaching at Dudley Elementary School, where she also has worked full-time as a teacher’s aide in fourth-grade special education.

“I didn’t expect to be named an Outstanding Student, and it was a nice surprise,” she said.

For Cano, the life of an educator is something she has experienced for most of her life. Her mother is a kindergarten teacher back home and was even Cano’s kindergarten teacher. Growing up, she spent her summers helping her mother decorate her classroom or would do tasks such as making copies of assignments. Cano also worked as an English tutor in high school and tutored at Victoria College in English as well.

“Just watching my mom when I was younger, I knew I wanted to be a teacher, too,” she said. “I like working with younger kids like my mom. Just seeing how happy and excited students are in class when they understand something is nice.”

Being a teacher’s aide during the pandemic was challenging, Cano said, because for a while learning all took place online. As she worked at the school, she also was taking her last courses at UHV. During those challenging times, Cano would lean on her coworkers and school administrators, who were all supportive. She also was especially appreciative of another Dudley teacher who served as her mentor and of Janelle Bouknight, a UHV assistant professor of literacy education, who taught the content necessary for teaching main subjects and was always there to help.

In addition to her degree, Cano would like to get a certification in dyslexia. She was inspired to get that certification after working with students who have dyslexia and seeing how important it was for those students to have a teacher who could support them as they learned to read. As an aide, she pulls students out of class in a small group setting to help with an assignment or get additional practice in a subject. Cano has worked with the same group of students for more than a year and is thrilled to see how the students have progressed in their studies.

After she graduates, Cano would like to work as a first-grade teacher. She thanked her parents, her sister Alyssa, and her boyfriend for their support.

“If I could give students advice, I would say to just keep going in your education,” she said. “The process gets hard, but it is worth it in the end.”

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