A Gator’s Perspective: Amanda Sapp’s Journey as a First-Gen and STEM Student

A Gator's Perspective.

Every student has their own educational journey. Whether that be attending college right out of high school or pursuing their education years later, UF Online makes earning a University of Florida bachelor’s degree at any stage of your life possible.

In celebration of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Day, we turn the spotlight over to Amanda Sapp, a UF Online Microbiology & Cell Science major who found her drive for education and science through UF Online’s program. In this edition of “A Gator’s Perspective,” Amanda shares her experience as not only a Gator Grad but also a first-generation student and female in STEM. Take it away, Amanda!


Written By: Amanda Sapp, B.S. Microbiology & Cell Science, Alum

Amanda 1

During the end of my senior year of high school, I was failing, disconnected, and lost. Ultimately, I decided to withdraw from high school. My parents went through a very intense divorce when I was 13 years old; the supportive path that was in place for me fell apart quickly. I lost self-confidence, became deeply depressed, and didn’t have motivation for an education. With the guidance of my older brother, I did manage to re-enroll in another high school and eventually graduate with a high school diploma. I moved away from pursuing college because I was still disconnected and needed to find myself in other ways aside from gaining an education.

What happened next allowed me to find the tools I needed to heal. After meeting my husband on a trip to New Orleans, I moved there from South Florida to start our life together. My husband helped my soul heal and self-esteem return, leading me to have a new drive for education and enrolling in massage school. We moved back to South Florida so I could complete school and gain my license in Massage Therapy. I thought massage school would be easier than it was, but what I found was quite a challenge in the scope of anatomy. Going through an intense series of anatomy classes made me realize that I had the strength and capacity to learn complicated subjects.

Amanda 2

After practicing massage therapy for a few years, I enrolled in Broward College (BC) on a track that would lead me to pursue the nursing program. One of the courses required for the nursing program was microbiology, and with the guidance of my husband, it was made aware to me that my heart was enthralled with the subject of microbiology. He pointed out I never spoke about nursing. All I talk about are microscopes, bacteria plating, and microbial life cycles. BC provided me with some awesome biology faculty mentorships that reinforced this newfound passion for me, and with their guidance, I discovered an online microbiology program with the University of Florida via UF Online. In Fall 2014, I was accepted into the UF Online Microbiology and Cell Science program after applying. At the time, the UF Online microbiology program did require a few in-person labs that I traveled to Gainesville, Florida, to complete. Attending these in-person labs was such a joy for me. I wanted to be immersed in the main campus and decided to move to Gainesville.

Dr. Monika Oli, senior lecturer and undergraduate coordinator for UF microbiology, was the first amazing mentor at UF I was blessed to have met. Through meeting her, I obtained a job in the teaching lab of the Microbiology Cell Science (MCS) Department, which led to being lab manager of one of the MCS research labs. It was about this time I gained my B.S. in Microbiology, with a minor in Bioinformatics, via UF Online. Through Dr. Oli’s continued guidance, I discovered, applied, and was accepted into the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at UF. Already having experience using Python software in my minor in Bioinformatics, the idea for concentrating in Biostatistics was appealing, as I would learn additional programming skills in SAS and R software languages.

Amanda 3

After starting the MPH program at UF, I met two pivotal UF mentors, Dr. Sarah McKune and Dr. Arie Havelaar. Through Dr. McKune, I became an MPH Biostatical intern, helping work on Dr. McKune’s Burkina Faso data set that assessed child malnutrition in villages over one year. While doing this, I left my position at the MCS research lab and started another intern position with Dr. Havelaar focused on building strong analytical skills. Once finished with the internship with Dr. McKune and graduating from the MPH program in 2017, I accepted a UF staff position, working under Dr. Havelaar, that focused on studying the prevalence of foodborne disease in three African countries by building attribution estimates on the World Health Organization’s Foodborne Epidemiology Research Groups data set. In this project, I had the opportunity to travel to Ethiopia in early March 2020 to meet with project stakeholders, which was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

Once the pandemic started, I had to shift to working remotely. During this time, my husband and I decided to fulfill one of our dreams of moving west to Tucson, Arizona. It was here that I was able to find a job locally as an Epidemiologist with the Pima County Health Department (PCHD). Epidemiology was always highly interesting to me, and now during a pandemic, I felt such a connection and drive to assist PCHD in their efforts to protect the communities they serve by doing good work for the people of Pima County.

Amanda 4

Lucky, I love innovative spaces and started to see a unique opportunity in front of me as the months progressed. The team I was serving on still did not have a manager. I applied for the role of Public Health Data Services Program Manager and was offered the position. I am now beginning to create a team that can break down structure, build relationships with the Biostatical Department at the University of Arizona to solidify our Academic Health Department status, secure grants for publishing PCHD findings, and create an Academic-Public Health hybrid team model that will move PCHD into a 21st-century Public Health entity.

Now that I am in the position I am in now, I often think, “how did this fall into place so perfectly?” The answer is mentorship. I met people who helped show me new opportunities I never knew existed. I forged relationships with these important mentors who I dearly respect and cannot thank enough. UF is an amazing place with amazing faculty. When considering pursuing your education through UF Online, listen to the voice inside your head that says, “Go for it!” To grow as an individual, we need to take chances and listen to guidance from successful people that may see things within us that we do not yet see. This is the lesson I learned from attending UF and having great mentors. Perspective is the key to a rewarding life and how you perceive challenges placed in front of you determines the roads you travel down. Do not be afraid of the unknown. If you embrace it, your dreams may just fall perfectly into place.

If you would like to learn more about applying to our microbiology program, please visit the degree page or register for one of our upcoming virtual information sessions.


The University of Florida, ranked No. 5 in the list of top 10 best public universities by U.S. News & World Report, launched UF Online in January 2014. UF Online was ranked No. 3 in the 2021 rankings for the best online bachelor’s programs in the country by U.S. News & World Report. Students can select from 25 degree pathways across a variety of disciplines as well as nine minors and work with a dedicated academic advisor to design their own academic pathway. Degree programs are continually being added. Visit UF Online’s degrees page to learn more.