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By Paul Bradley  /  
2016 June 20 - 05:27 pm

Healing the Wounds

Seven Valencia College Students Die in Orlando Attack

Valencia College won renown five years ago when it was named the top community college in the country, the first winner of the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. It was praised for its ability to get students to graduation and into four-year institutions and was held up as a model for the rest of the country to emulate.

But now the college finds itself in the media spotlight for an unwanted reason. Seven of its current or former students were among the 49 people killed when Omar Mateen walked into the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and started shooting everyone that he could.

The deaths have deeply affected the college, which enrolls nearly 70,000 students across five campuses in and around Orlando. And while the college removed the word “community” from its name in 2010, when it began offering bachelor’s degrees, it is closely tied to its community. The deaths of students left the college in deep mourning.

The dead students reflected the broad diversity that has become the hallmark of community colleges, and especially Valencia. It’s enrollment is 32 percent Hispanic or Latino, 31 percent White and 17 percent African American.

The college offered free counseling services at every campus, in addition to a 24-hour hotline. Some Valencia professors and staffers are licensed mental health counselors and are prepared to help students cope with the tragedy.

As reported by the Orlando Sentinel and other media outlets, the dead students included:

Amanda Alvear, 25, posted on Snapchat from the nightclub before the shooting. Alvear’s friend Sandy Marte said one of Alvear’s Snapchats showed a packed club full of revelers. Another, a selfie video of Alvear with a series of gunshots in the background.

Marte and Alvear bonded over breakups and health problems.

“She was loving, she was caring, she always had an open ear, she always wanted to help people,’’ Marte said. “She had an amazing heart.’’ She was working as a pharmacy technician and wanted to become a nurse. Her brother said she frequented gay and lesbian clubs because they were fun places, and she felt safe to be herself.

Oscar Aracena-Montero, 26, who had returned from a vacation visiting New York City and Niagara Falls just before he went to Orlando’s Pulse nightclub and became a victim of the mass shooting. He went to the Pulse nightclub for Latin Night at the gay club. He had moved to Florida from the Dominican Republic as a child. He lived with his partner, Simon Adrian Carillo-Fernandez – who was also killed in the attack – and three Chihuahuas in a home they bought last year. a friend, Andrea Herrera, told the Orlando Sentinel.

“Oscar was a very sweet guy. Very sweet to everybody,’’ his cousin, Yamilka Pimentel told the newspaper. “Every time he met somebody they would like him a lot. He was the type of guy who goes along with anybody.’’

Cory James Connell, 21, who was studying at Valencia and working at the local Publix supermarket. According to a post on his Facebook page, he had gone to Pulse with his fiancé to learn to dance to Latin music so when they got married, he’d know how to dance to all types of music. His brother Ryan wrote on Facebook that Cory was the “superhero” of his family. He had hoped to become a firefighter.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, friends and even a former middle school teacher posted to Facebook about him.

“I’ve taught almost 1,700 kids at Lee. He was so special,’’ said Shelley Klein, a science teacher at Lee Middle School. “All of his teachers at Lee adored him. We describe him as our alltime favorite.’’ He was attending Valenica and hoped to become a firefighter.

Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26, was an avid music fan and had attended the Pulse nightclub with her best friend, Amanda Alvear, who also was killed in the massacre.

Ashley Velez, a mutual friend, shared her sadness in a Facebook post.

“[These] two beautiful souls have been taken way too soon,” Velez wrote. “You girls will be missed.”

She went to Pulse nightclub almost every weekend. “She was very outgoing,’’ her sister-inlaw, Nancy Flores, said. “She had lots of friends.’’ Mercedez Flores worked at Target, studied at Valencia College and wanted to become a party planner so she could coordinate events with her two older brothers, who are both DJs.

Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22, who had gone to the Pulse nightclub with his boyfriend, Christopher Leinonen, who also was killed. Guerrero was a former Valencia College student and pre-finance student at the University of Central Florida. He worked as a telemarketer.

He was remembered by friends as very passionate, someone who would fill a room with energy. He and his boyfriend loved to dance, which drew them to Pulse that night.

He told his cousin, Robert Guerrero, that he was gay about two years ago. But he was worried about how the rest of his family would react, and did not tell them until just before the beginning of this year.

“He was like a big brother to me,’’ Robert Guerrero, 19, said. “He was never the type to go out to parties, would rather stay home and care for his niece and nephew.’’

Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19, had many interests and was just starting to chart his path in life, according to his family. He was computer savvy, loved to work out and had an interest in photography. He was a recent high school graduate who had started classes at Valencia College, studying computer science.

He called his mother as a gunman opened fire to ask for help, his aunt and uncle said.

She stayed on the line with him and could hear gunshots in the background, but tried to calm him down as he hid in the bathroom, Jimmy and Myrleine Inelus told KPNX-TV in Arizona, where Josaphat went to high school.

He was the second-youngest victim of the attack.

Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20, wanted to be a star. “He was one of the most amazing dancers,’’ his sister, Belinette Ocasio-Capo, said. “He would always call me and say, `I’m going to be the next Hollywood star.’ He really did want to make it and be known.

“Now his name ended up being all around the world, like he wanted — just not this way,’’ she said of her brother, a dancer who was working at a Starbucks while studying theater.

He grew up in Nashville, Tenn., and moved to Orlando to pursue his career goals. While studying at Valencia, he worked at Target and Starbucks.

The college marked the tragedy with a candlelight vigil and remembrance walk on the college’s West Campus. Mourners walked past 49 empty chairs, each representing a victim of the shooting.

College officials reached out to the community to lend their support and urged students to resist the urge to assign blame to ethnic or religious groups.

College President Sandy Shugart released a video urging students to seek out and offer support from others.

“Make sure we are aware that there are many kinds of victims,” he said. “There is no more inclusive place than Valencia College, nor more diverse. So you have plenty of friends here. Let’s celebrate that.

“We have many wonderful staff and students of Muslim faith. They feel frightened, distressed and angry over what has happened. Be sure to embrace them, too. They didn’t cause this. This was the act of a madman.”

Lew Oliver, chair of the college’s Board of Trustees, urged students and the broad community to resist the temptation to assign blame.

“Please note that the twisted minds that do these things feed on our reactions to this, and hope that we will turn on each other like poor souls trapped in the broken worlds from which their hate arises.

Do not give them the satisfaction,” he said in a statement.

“Remember that it is the very heart of our glorious national experiment that every man and woman is responsible only for the content of their own hearts and the actions of their own hands, and none of us bears responsibility – or deserves blame – for what the sick and the evil may do in the name of something we hold dear.”

After pausing to grieve, students must move on with hopes and dreams, as the departed would wish.

“That is the only memorial to them that counts,” he said. “Evil has snatched from us dozens of precious lives. Let us resolve firmly to end the loss there.”

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