Despite Coming to U.S. to Study as Pandemic Hit, Nighthawk Soars!

April 21, 2023

Stefania Piciorea always wanted to explore the world. She traveled a lot, experiencing new cultures and learning new things. Her parents were not surprised when she told them she was leaving Romania to study abroad. Stefania had gotten her parents used to that idea. But it did not make it easier for them when she moved to America to study and then the pandemic happened.


Stefania came to the States in January 2020, just months before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Moving to a new country all alone is challenging, but the pandemic made it even harder. She admits it was scary when she first arrived, and the shutdown started.

Tell us a little about yourself and your background. 

I am an international and non-traditional NOVA student. I was born and raised in Romania. At 23, I took a leap of faith by moving to the United States alone. 

Studying in the States would allow me the best opportunity to further my education and broaden my horizons as I immersed myself in diverse cultural environments, ultimately accelerating my learning and education. Despite facing the challenge of navigating an entirely new academic environment as a non-native English speaker, I am incredibly proud to have earned my associate in computer science with the highest honors at NOVA.

How do you feel about being a Jack Kent Cooke Semifinalist? 

I am incredibly honored and grateful to be selected. This opportunity not only validates the hard work and dedication I have put into my academic pursuits but also underscores the importance of striving for excellence. I am humbled to be among such a talented group of learners and eager to learn from their diverse experiences and perspectives. This recognition also inspires me to continue pursuing my goals with passion and perseverance while giving back to my community and making a positive impact on the lives of others.

What brought you to NOVA?

I was first introduced to NOVA by an alumnus who was aware of my financial limitations and told me that attending NOVA will not only provide me with a great education at affordable tuition rates but would also open a path to transfer to some of the best universities in the nation. He said the environment at NOVA is a bit more welcoming. It's not like a full immersion in American academics. It's a little more flexible with selecting classes and picking your professors.

As I researched further, it became clear that NOVA was the best place to start my academic journey because it provided a supportive and welcoming environment to help me adjust to cultural and academic differences.

Also, NOVA offers a diverse student body and a variety of academic programs and courses. Lastly, I was drawn to the Northern Virginia area because of its many opportunities in terms of academic and professional development due to its proximity to Washington, D.C.

What did you study at NOVA?

I studied computer science and graduated Summa Cum Laude in May 2022. I was drawn to computer science because software design and development are about discovery and using creativity to solve complex problems. The potential of technology is truly inspiring, constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible, enhancing and augmenting the things we love the most about the world. 

I am grateful for the opportunities NOVA offered me to further explore this field, both inside and outside the classroom and for helping me nurture my passion for leveraging technology to improve the human experience.

Tell us about your experience at NOVA, i.e., professors you’ve liked and friends you’ve met. 

My time at NOVA has been transformative, thanks to the incredible professors and academic community that have guided and mentored me along the way. Every professor I had the privilege to learn from at NOVA has been committed to my success. 

Emilia Butu, my computer science professor, shared my cultural background and was instrumental in helping me lay the foundation of the Women Who Code Club. Also, I became the secretary of the Coding Club. My involvement with both clubs was how I met people since COVID-19 had shut everything down. I wish the timing was better because my two years at NOVA were mostly spent on Zoom classes. It was a bit lonely, and I only got to come to campus for a couple of months before the shutdown.

Professor Hanney Shaban, who taught Discrete Structures, served as a mentor during my academic journey and provided invaluable support to help me navigate the challenges of being an international student. Professors Jennifer Soult (Calculus II), Homayoun Sharafi (Computer Science), Biniyam Tibebu (Calculus I & Discrete Mathematics), and Rashida Rowther (Macroeconomics) were remarkable instructors, dedicated to ensuring the success of their students. 

Thanks to the support provided by these professors, I was recognized with the NOVA SEAL Award and was selected as a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Transfer Scholarship semifinalist. They helped me achieve academic excellence and gave me the confidence and strength to pursue my dreams and believe in myself. I will always be grateful for their guidance and impact on my life!

What would you tell a student coming to NOVA?

Be prepared to challenge yourself and push beyond your comfort zone. Embrace every opportunity that comes your way, whether it's joining a club, attending a networking event or volunteering for an organization. 

Embrace the opportunities for growth and learning that are available to you here, as NOVA is a safe place to make mistakes and explore your passions. Don't be afraid to take risks and ask for help when you need it –the supportive community at NOVA is committed to your success and will help you every step of the way and beyond.

Where do you see yourself after NOVA or what career pursuits are you exploring?

As my journey at NOVA came to an end, I was eager to pursue my passion further by transferring to an institution like Cornell or George Washington University, where I’ll gain the necessary knowledge and skills to pursue a career in software development.

In the long term, I seek to use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to create innovative applications that can help build community, facilitate communication and improve human health and experience. I want to be at the forefront of this technology because I think it can enhance the way people interact and live their lives.

I am proud to be a NOVA alumna, and I look forward to making NOVA proud through my future achievements and giving back to the community that has offered me so much.

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