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Desperation to Discovery

Darash Desai ’08, who was introduced to the Convocation stage by Stetson President Wendy B. Libby, Ph.D.: “I’m not sure I could have had a richer experience — and once I was ready for it, it all came down to just a handful of actions that really made my time here.”

After arriving at Stetson from Celebration High School in Kissimmee, Florida, Darash Desai didn’t want to stay. Desai was a first-generation immigrant who grew up squarely focused on math and science and without an idea about liberal arts education.

Desai had been wait-listed for admission by several top-notch institutions of higher technical learning, including Stanford University and M.I.T., and conceded that he wound up on the DeLand campus only because a teacher from high school made the last-minute suggestion. He even used the word “desperate” to describe his intent to transfer early, adding that he actually sought out Stanford a second time, a request that was denied.

Desai told the story only a handful of hours before he would stand up in front of a vibrant crowd at the Edmunds Center as Stetson’s 2018 Convocation speaker.

By the way, Desai, Class of 2008 (biochemistry and physics) and now a senior research specialist at Boston University, where he added Ph.D. to his name, also proudly included this in his pre-speech words: “Stetson is really kind of a home and family for me. I had a lot of great experiences here.”

Stetson Convocation, held Aug. 22, marked the formal opening of the 2018-2019 academic year, with classes commencing the next day. The new academic year welcomes approximately 900 first-time-in-college students and 110 transfer students — Stetson’s second largest incoming — who join some 2,100 returning undergraduates. In all, Stetson has an estimated 4,300 students, including graduate students and students at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport.

An annual tradition, Stetson Convocation is filled with pageantry.

Many of them were in attendance at Convocation, gathered together for the first time. And, in keeping with tradition, there was a colorful processional of campus dignitaries and class representatives along with ample pomp and circumstance.

On stage, Desai’s messages were similarly stimulating. He began his Convocation address with: “Stetson has played an incredible role in where I’ve ended up today – a senior researcher in global health innovation at one of the leading engineering institutions in the country.” He then when on to tell his story, one of initial unease that steadily turned into opportunity, engagement and triumph.

“In my four years here,” Desai stated, “I’m not sure I could have had a richer experience — and once I was ready for it, it all came down to just a handful of actions that really made my time here.”

Desai: “Plans don’t always work out, and that’s OK. … In the end, they really worked out for me.”

Those actions, he explained, simply were the result of “opening up” — exploring, inspiring others and challenging oneself.

About exploring, Desai commented: “It turned out Stetson had too much to offer to stay locked up in the science building, and thankfully I fell into the right crowd and had the right direction early enough to take full advantage of what Stetson had to offer.”

Of inspiring, he said, “During my time here, one of the single greatest sources of inspiration were my own peers. … So, engage each other. Reach out to one another. You never know where you might end up.”

Regarding the idea of challenging oneself, Desai said he was forced out of his comfort zone at Stetson. Yet, while courses such as Foundations of Knowledge, Self and Society, and Justice and Ethics were “alien” to him, they strengthened his ability to think critically. “I learned to challenge the things I took for granted, dissect my own beliefs and, in the process, got to better know myself, what I wanted and what I stood for. That ended up having a pretty profound impact on my trajectory,” he shared.

At Stetson, Desai concluded, he discovered himself.

Today, his work at Boston University is multipronged and focuses on the design and development of need-based global health technologies that deliver social impact in low-income countries. His doctoral work had centered on the development of PharmaChk, a portable medicines-quality screening tool. Those efforts now are being expanded.

In essence, Desai is helping to ensure that medicines worldwide actually work, particularly in the countries of greatest need.

It’s a long way from Stetson but apparently not far from lessons learned.

Hours before he took the stage, Desai shared one other bit of insight about his days in DeLand: “Plans don’t always work out, and that’s OK. … In the end, they really worked out for me.”

See Convocation video: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/116709536

-Michael Candelaria