FAU Broward Campuses - Alumni Spotlight

Kendra Merchant

Tuesday, Aug 01, 2023
Kendra Merchant

Molecular & Integrative Biology | Class of 2009

Kendra Merchant knows what it’s like to start over. When looking for somewhere to complete her masters, a friend from Florida suggested Florida Atlantic University. It would be very different than the island life she was used to in Jamaica, but the beachy coastline and balmy weather was a big selling point. So, Kendra took a leap – and a one-way plane ticket – to a destination full of vibrant culture, endless opportunity and new-found independence.

"Everything was different from what I knew. But I had a few friends here from Jamaica that helped settle me in and my advisor at the time, Dr. Kwasi Kumi-Diaka, played a major part in helping me get established as well," she said.

Growing up, Kendra didn’t really have an affinity for science. As she got older, she slowly began to fall in love with chemistry. And it was her brother that pushed her to pursue a career in science – a subject that has always been male dominant. He encouraged her to join the revolution of "women in science" and she found herself motivated to obtain her bachelor’s degree in chemistry. But it was a biochemistry class that made her realize how interesting the world of biology was, and cancer research opened the door to her future in biology and research. She took her degree further and entered the master’s program at FAU, majoring in molecular biology. And then, she achieved a Ph.D. in integrative biology.

Though the college experience wasn’t easy, Kendra wouldn’t change it for the world. Some of her closest friendships were built during her college years in the graduate program. Together, they supported each other through late night thesis paper writing, school/work/life balancing, starting families and building a lifetime of memories in between. Like the one time Kendra and her friend wanted to go to lunch but realized, like many college students, they didn’t have much money. So they sat together, counting coins and scrounging up what they could to share a meal. It's a memory they can still laugh about today, and a great example of how important it is to surround yourself with a support system.

She also attributes a lot her drive and independence to growing up in Jamaica. She was raised in a loving home with her two sisters. She had other siblings that lived nearby as well and together they spent much of their time outside playing and exploring. They didn’t have a bus system during their school years. Instead, they learned how to navigate public transportation – opening the doors for new explorations, building relationships with the various people on the island and yes, a bit of mischief too. But Kendra and her siblings also gained a sense of independence early in life. Something that helped prepare her for the big world that lay ahead.

Today, Kendra works as a biology professor at Miami Dade College. And it was professor Kumi-Diaka, her advisor turned mentor, that inspired her to go into teaching. One day, he put her in front of the classroom and told her "Today you’re going to teach the class." She didn’t have any teaching experience, and she was completely terrified, but he believed in her – and that was enough.

"That day sparked my love for teaching," Kendra recalls. "Because of Dr. Kumi, I went into teaching. When starting my masters, I was leaning toward research, and he inspired me to teach. He was a really great mentor."

Kendra found the perfect recipe for a successful college experience. "Lean on your support system of family, friends (make them and keep them) and your team of advisors and professors. You can’t do it on your own. Surround yourself with people who will support you. And most of all… believe in yourself!"

Outside of the classroom setting, Kendra enjoys being a wife and a mother of two: a son who is 17 and a daughter who is 12. Together they enjoy going to the beach. Kendra also is an avid reader and dabbles in just about every genre. She hopes to travel more in the future – on her list is a backpacking trip through Europe, an African safari and a cruise. She also thinks it would be fun to experience grape stomping – the "old-fashioned" way of making wine.

Her husband also has a high focus on education. His business involves developing educational games that promote early literacy and start a healthy educational growth for today’s youth. She hopes to someday, work full time in that business, but for now, Kendra is content in staying in academia as a professor.

When asked about her future, she smiles and replies, "I believe in just living in the moment and just enjoying life. Life is tough. It gets hard. It gets stressful. But we have to enjoy the moments we have. Especially with our family and close friends. Find joy in the little things. That’s what life is really about."