A 12-Year Delay Leads to Success

Melissa Gomez attended small private schools until fall 2000, when she found herself a freshman film major at one of the nation’s largest universities.

She came to the conclusion all of the students knew what they wanted out of life and she did not yet. She chose to leave UCF, believing she was wasting her time.

“I dropped out because I couldn’t focus,” Gomez said. “I had goals and although I had no idea how to achieve them, I knew I had to do it full force or not at all.”

She returned 12 years later with a new goal: Anthropology.

“Most archaeologists grew up watching Indiana Jones movies, documentaries and probably various forensics shows,” Gomez said. “I had no idea what was real and what was not, but I knew I had a deep-set interest in the past and discovering where we came from and what makes us tick.”

Biology was her top pick of subjects, but she loved the adventure of digging to find artifacts and remains. It was during her sophomore year she discovered the marriage of two her loves in bio-archaeology. Gomez specialized in the human body, specifically the skeleton, but also has traveled to complete field work. As an undergraduate, she participated in archaeological digs in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

“Through this lab work I can use collagen from bone, skin, hair and nails to identify anything diet or disease related,” Gomez said. “I can even identify the location the remains may have resided in as everything environmental leaves a trace within your cells.”

She’s also won two awards for research she did on a species of rodent that is indigenous to the Caribbean. Through her research massive quantities of the rodent were found in an unexpected location. It led to questions of the rodent’s domesticity in a pre-Columbian Taino Indian world, which has yet to be heard of. Through isotopic analyses Gomez proved the distinct possibility that this was in fact true. Gomez was recognized for her work through the Research and Mentoring Program (RAMP).

“It is a two-year commitment that any undergrad may apply for,” she said. “It’s similar to a work study fellowship. Should you be chosen you are then technically a UCF employee who receives compensation for the hours you work on a project. It was through that I managed to win two Student Undergraduate Research Excellence awards.”

Gomez says students should try to be noticed. Part of her success her second time around at UCF was her involvement. Gomez wasn’t afraid to sit in the front row and ask questions or get to know her professors during office hours.

“If you want doors to open for you then you have to make sure people know that you’re there,” she said. “You may not know exactly why you are at college but you also never know where inspiration will hit and the more you do the more chances of finding yourself in the perfect place for you.”

It’s safe to say Gomez has found her perfect place in the UCF Anthropology department. She graduated with her bachelor’s in May 2017 and is beginning her master’s degree this fall. She’s shown herself that she is capable of success and has achieved more than she thought possible. Encouragement and knowledge of her peers and professors helped her through it.

“At UCF if you want something you will find a way to make it happen through dedication and hard work,” she said. “You can be noticed, you can prove yourself and there is no such thing as ‘too late’ as I hope to attain my Ph.D. by the age of 40.”

Gomez is well on her way, and hopes to work with volunteer groups to help identify remains from natural disasters, genocides, or war crimes. She’s confident she can bring her skills to any destination and be successful. She says students don’t need to have it all figured out – just be available to everything UCF has to offer.

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