Cornerstone: Alumnus Ties Nonprofit Impact Back to Foundational UCF Experience

Dan Samuels ’08 would have told you himself when he started to get his business degree at UCF that he didn’t have a clue what he was going to do with it.

But it was in that business major at UCF that Dan found step one toward a 12-years-and-counting career in nonprofit fundraising and a recent position as the new Director of Philanthropy at Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida.

How did Dan go from a fair-weather business major to a passionate non-profit professional?

During Dan’s junior year, he took a class within the College of Business called Cornerstone. Essentially this program connected students with a nonprofit to help them raise funds or complete a project and then the students gave presentations and wrote papers based on the work they were doing with that nonprofit. It was a learning opportunity unlike anything else Dan had encountered thus far in his schooling.

“That Cornerstone class was a pivotal moment for me,” Dan starts. “It was my first hands-on experience at a nonprofit and it made me realize that that’s what I wanted to be doing. I remember walking out of the Student Union one day, calling my dad, and saying ‘I know what I want to do for a living – I want to go raise money for a nonprofit.’ And his response, which gets me every time, was ‘it’s about damn time you figured that out. I’ve known it for years.’”

Dan began to connect the dots between everything he had done in high school and college and realized it was all philanthropic. He was the high schooler throwing walkathons and carnivals to raise money for his temple. He was the college student who ran Knight-Thon for two years. He was the 4EVER KNIGHT that quickly became a 4EVER Knight Ambassador. And during that Cornerstone class, Dan worked alongside Boys Town, a residential-based program for children facing turmoil such as abuse or neglect, and helped the organization facilitate the building of an onsite basketball court. After that experience, and that eye-opening conversation with his father, Dan stuck with a general business major but added a nonprofit certificate (which is all that existed at the time).

“That Cornerstone project led to an internship at Boys Town for two years,” Dan says. “It provided a paid internship, hands-on experience and work in an actual nonprofit. I absolutely credit that work to getting my first career-job. If you take it all the way back, a class at UCF helped me define my career path and led me to an internship that gave me the hands-on experience that got me my first job. I can tie every step since back to UCF.”

Dan went from Boys Town to Devereux, a similar nonprofit that serves at-risk children. He was there for seven years, starting at the bottom of the totem pole and working his way up to the Director of Development. From there, he got a call from a friend who was the Executive Director of an on-campus nonprofit called Central Florida Hillel. His friend mentioned he was looking for somebody to handle fundraising and wanted to see if Dan knew of anyone. The phone call lasted about 30 minutes and ended with Dan’s friend saying, “Let me know who you think of, even if that person is staring you back in the mirror.”

That undercover recruitment-call led to three years for Dan as the Director of Development for Hillel, an organization that helps to create community for Jewish students on UCF’s campus.

“It’s a phenomenal organization,” Dan says. “It’s definitely something that I still support and something that I really believe in, but I saw an incredible opportunity here and I couldn’t turn it down. I jumped on it.”

“Here” is Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, where Dan currently serves as the Director of Philanthropy. For Dan, deciding to join the team at Second Harvest was two-fold: what the organization means for the community and what the organization could mean for his career.

“On a bigger picture, I couldn’t imagine being hungry,” Dan says. “I’ve never had to want for food. And since being here, that’s really hit home for me. You realize how many of us are just one car accident or major medical incident away from needing help. And then, on a personal note, the decision had a lot to do with what I wanted to accomplish in my career. Over the years, I’ve built a skill set and here I can really focus my skill set on something I want to be a part of.”

Dan is now a part of the collection, storage and distribution of donated food to over 550 feeding partners throughout Central Florida. The food Second Harvest provides goes to food pantries, soup kitchens, women’s shelters, senior centers, day care centers and Kid Cafes. It goes to partner programs throughout our community who know their population and can make an impact through the food Second Harvest provides. This type of partnership is one of the things that appealed to Dan about the organization.

“Part of what we do is feed the masses and part of what we do is change the system,” Dan says. “But that’s only possible when the community works together. Nonprofits build better communities. They make the community a stronger place by helping to solve problems the community can’t solve on its own.”

It doesn’t take long to pick up on the enthusiasm Dan feels about not only each nonprofit he’s worked for in his career, but nonprofits in general. That enthusiasm wasn’t only born at UCF, it was fostered there. Dan had the opportunities, through things like Knight-Thon and Cornerstone, to develop his passions and skills into a career that impacts the entire Central Florida community.

“My experiences at UCF built my resume,” Dan says. “But UCF also made me a more well-rounded person. I really feel like myself there. I became more comfortable with who I was. The experiences were great for my career, but also college at UCF was just great for me as a person.”

Come Fly With Me: Alumna Trades Airlines for TV Production

Megan Shub ’09 worked hard to climb the ladder of success for a major airline, got right up near the top, looked around, and leapt right off that ladder to the bottom of the production-industry barrel. From account manager to 27-year-old intern. From salary, health benefits and structure to who-knows-what-happens-next.

It was risky and it was courageous and it was such a good decision that she is now a segment producer for “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”

Megan, who grew up in Central Florida and transferred to UCF after completing her associate degree at Seminole State Community College, majored in humanities. Driven by a curiosity about the world, some of Megan’s fondest childhood memories were stocking up on piles of books on her weekly visits to the library with her mom. She always loved the opportunity to be transported into someone else’s story, and eventually, as a high schooler on the newspaper team, learned to love being a storyteller herself.

She had every intent of majoring in English, but on the day of her UCF orientation, a bold impulse kicked in and she stood up to go with a different group of students. A prolonged study of culture, traditions and beliefs across the world had begun and Megan spent the next two years immersed in the study of multicultural humanities.

“I think one of the most important things about UCF is the diversity of the student body,” Megan says. “Especially when studying humanities, it’s an environment where you have to be respectful of people’s opinions. It gave me a greater understanding of how the world works and what people can do together.”

Unfortunately, Megan’s transition out of college and into the workforce was during the 2009 recession. She was able to get a handful of freelance writing jobs, but it wasn’t enough to help her with rent. She knew she needed a consistent job, even if it meant moving away from what she imagined her career would be.

She ended up at British Airways as a customer service agent. The job sounded interesting enough, plus she’d get to travel some and that would probably be exciting. And, most importantly for Megan, she’d get to meet interesting people every day.

Eventually that customer service agent role led Megan to the management track of British Airways and she landed a job as the airport duty manager stationed out of the Newark airport. She had, in one fell swoop, moved out of her home state and made a huge career move with a major airline.

“It was a lot of responsibility for a 23-year-old,” Megan says. “And coming up without any friends or family, being in my early twenties and working at the airport, it was just very isolating for me.”

Megan began to look into getting a job in the corporate offices for British Airways, which would allow for her to move into New York City and continue her upward momentum within the company. She transitioned to a job on the sales team supporting account managers with marketing materials.

“There were a lot of good things about that job,” Megan says. “But I knew pretty early on that I wasn’t a good fit for it. That’s when I started really thinking, ‘OK, maybe I should make a serious change.’”

It was four years and three job titles with British Airways later and Megan felt that she had mostly given up on some of her original ambitions. What she wanted next was something creative. She wanted to tell people’s stories.

Megan’s wheels began turning — what would it look like for her to enter the entertainment industry and actually get paid to work in television. She found an ad on Craigslist for a Brooklyn production company that was willing to hire people with no prior television experience. At 27 years old, Megan became an intern on a TV series called “Finding Your Roots.”

“I knew that my role, which was mostly research, would help me learn about how to make a TV show,” Megan says. “And it drew on a lot of my interests. I didn’t know where it would lead, but, at the time, it felt like a good change and a step in the right direction.”

“Finding Your Roots” is a show specifically designed for that cousin you have who is really into sharing his ancestry.com results. In each episode, celebrities view their ancestral histories and learn more about their bloodlines and family’s experiences. Megan joined the team in season three, starting out as an intern and eventually becoming an archival researcher. She would help with historical information, fact-checking and finding specific footage. Let’s say an episode required a shot of Maya Rudolph on the red carpet, pictures of her great-relatives and some footage of soldiers from World War II in a particular location – Megan is the one to track it all down and get it ready for an editor to piece together.

Megan started out on “Finding Your Roots” as an intern in January of 2015, was hired as a researcher in March of that year and by December was an associate producer. In September of 2016, Megan took time off from work to have a baby, and when she returned to work, she started on a true-crime show as an associate producer. The research skills Megan had learned from “Finding Your Roots” transferred over as she had to be relentless in seeking information. Her customer-service experience from British Airways transferred over as well, as she was navigating difficult conversations with either families of murder victims or families of perpetrators. Megan also credits her background in humanities.

“There’s this perception that studying the humanities is some sort of kumbaya, useless, or maybe even indulgent thing,” she says. “But I learned a lot of hard skills in those classes. Research skills, analysis skills, people skills. I use those every day in my job.”

Megan was with the true-crime show for a few months before heading back to “Finding Your Roots” as a coproducer, and then in January 2018 (three years after her initial jump into the entertainment industry, for those keeping track) she transitioned to her current job as a segment producer on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”. In general, TV producers create and execute individual stories for the air. There’s brainstorming and delegating ideas, researching topics, booking guests, writing scripts, interviewing sources — a whole myriad of things that come together to set up the segment, coordinate it, and execute it on camera.

“I feel like storytelling is a basic human need, right? There were cave paintings. People want to be entertained; they connect emotionally with stories. I think in some ways, stories tell themselves, it’s just my job to pull out a narrative.”

In a lot of ways, Megan’s story tells itself. Wasn’t the girl who loved going to the library always going to end up a storyteller? Wasn’t the freshman at UCF who impulsively switched her desired major always going to be the kind of adult who was brave enough to switch careers? Wasn’t the college graduate who picked airlines so she could meet interesting people always going to be the producer who gets to experience an array of stories?

“Any time you step into the unknown, it can be scary,” Megan says. “But I think that one of my better qualities is that I like change and I’m open to it. It was scary stepping out of a situation where I had accumulated respect and had to start all over again somewhere else. But I was prepared for a challenge and it was worth it.”

Fiesta Bowl: Alumnus Shares 2014 Experience and Why He’ll Be Back

From left to right: Robert Muramatsu, Todd VanHoozier ’94, Matt Assenmacher ’93 and Jeff Downing in Arizona for the 2014 Fiesta Bowl

For those of you new to the exciting world of UCF Football, this year is actually the second time we’ve been invited to head out to Arizona for the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl (only back then we called it the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl). We sat down with alumnus and UCF Alumni Board member, Matt Assenmacher ’93, to ask him a little about his experience for the 2014 game, what he’s looking forward to this year and what he’d tell people on the fence about attending.

What led you to the Fiesta Bowl in 2014?

It was the last year of the BCS era and we had joined the Big East, which was restructured to the American Athletic Conference. So this was the last year that our conference had an automatic tie-in to a BCS (now New Year’s Six) bowl. When it got to the point that at the end of the season, we realized UCF was going to go, I talked to some of my friends and we just said — we’re not going to miss this opportunity because we didn’t know if it would happen again. Obviously not knowing at the time that three years later the Peach Bowl would happen and then we’d be going back to Arizona again, but at the time we thought this opportunity may not present itself again.

And what was it like?

We had a great time. We didn’t get there that much earlier than the game, so we didn’t get to do a lot of sight-seeing. We just really focused on the game and went to the alumni tailgate, which we had a blast at. The game was amazing. UCF never trailed in the game. Everyone was saying we were going to lose and we were going to get destroyed, and it was just a great feeling afterwards because — at that point, it was the biggest win we’d ever had. It’s funny too because some of the Baylor fans, when we were walking into the stadium with them, they were real nice to us because they figured we didn’t have a chance. And they were really quiet on the way out.

Did you think twice about making the trip? Because of the Arizona of it all?

No not at all. And not this time either. I’m taking my son and we’re spending a little extra time there. We’re going to see the Grand Canyon, Sedona, if we get time we’re going to go down to Tombstone and just see some of the sights around Arizona.

What were some of your favorite experiences in 2014?

Besides the game, definitely the alumni tailgate. We actually spent a good chunk of that day at the alumni tailgate and just had a great time.

What has been most exciting to you the past few years as a UCF Knight?

It’s amazing just to see them go undefeated in one season. That doesn’t happen very often. And to do it back-to-back seasons is amazing, especially with the coaching changes. It’s been really exciting to see the student support growing and the fan support from the community. I had season tickets both times when we were win-less, and through good and bad, it’s important to support the team. It’s great to see the success they’ve had. And I think a lot of it too has to do with the things that Danny White has put in place to try to make all of our athletic programs successful. It all brings a lot of really good exposure to the university.

What are you looking forward to the most?

Well, the game. Number one. Getting a chance to get back out there again and seeing some sights and taking advantage of the location.

What advice would you give people considering to head out to this year’s game?

Figure out a way to make it happen. At that 2014 game, that was kind of a first-time thing, so we never knew if it was going to happen again. Last year we had the Peach Bowl and we can get kind of spoiled with success too, where people may be thinking “well I’ll just wait until it comes back to the Peach Bowl or somewhere close.” But there are no guarantees. You never know what’s going to happen. I hope UCF continues to have great success and we continue to have these great opportunities, but don’t take it for granted. Take advantage of the opportunity and find a way to make it happen. I’ve seen some postings online where students are planning to drive. I understand that it’s not cheap to get out there, but you can find ways to make it work. The work that the coaches and the players have put into the season and how much support they’ve had at home all year, let’s help continue that support for the last game of the season at the Fiesta Bowl.

You heard Matt. Make it happen!

Five Things Knights Need to Know About Giving Tuesday at UCF

Giving Tuesday at UCF
You can make a #GivingTuesday gift as early as today.

Falling on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, Giving Tuesday puts its own philanthropic spin on days like Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.

On November 27, people all over the world will celebrate generosity by giving their time, talent and treasure. We encourage our Knights to consider UCF when participating in Giving Tuesday this year.

In fact, here are five things Knights should know about Giving Tuesday at UCF:

1. This year Giving Tuesday is on Tuesday, Nov. 27, but you can #GiveToUCF as early as today!

2. Last year, 700 donors raised $71,000 to support programs at the university on Giving Tuesday. From First Generation Scholarships, to the UCF Football Excellence fund, to gifts that enabled the Knights Pantry to provide meals for students, each and every dollar donated has already made a lasting impact on our UCF family.

3. Our goal is to surpass last year’s success , but we need your help to make it happen. Every gift matters, whether it’s $5, $10 or $50; it makes a collective impact when we all work together.

4. If you have a passion, we can find a fund at UCF that deserves your support. If you simply can’t decide where to donate, consider making a gift to UCF’s Area of Greatest Need. By doing so, the university can direct your gift to a program or department that needs support, and therefore will offer the greatest impact.

5. All giving matters – whether it’s a financial gift, your time or your talent. Here are some other ways to show your support: Volunteer with your local alumni group; become a social media ambassadorKnight Your Ride; cheer loud and proud at the next UCF sporting eventmentor current UCF studentshire a Knightattend an event; and most importantly, share your story. Tell everyone what it means to be a Knight and why you love UCF!

Together, we can power the future of this great university. Go Knights, Charge On!

Alex Cascio ’15: A Passion for Storytelling

UCF Alumnus Alex Cascio
Photo courtesy Vibrant Media Productions, LLC

By Azela Santana

Alex Cascio ’15 grew up hearing his mother, Jeri Cascio ’87, retelling tales of her commute between Daytona and to the University of Central Florida, where she earned her finance degree. A generation later, Alex found himself attending his mother’s beloved alma mater.

Cascio has always had a passion for film and capturing special moments that told a compelling story, but it wasn’t until he attended UCF that he realized he could parlay this hobby into a career path. While taking classes in marketing, advertising and accounting, he asked himself, why not combine business and storytelling? He switched his major from business administration to human communication/digital media, and forged his own path. This life-changing decision allowed him to go back to the creative space he loved so much, which eventually led to a successful career path in digital media.

During his time as a student, Alex worked full-time as a salesperson for a web design company and also developed his own start-up company, Vibrant Media Productions (VMP). Knowing that he could earn money to pay for expensive production-level equipment and gear that he needed for his start-up provided the motivation he needed to succeed at his commission-only sales position.

“Starting up VMP was quite challenging while being a full-time student,” Cascio recalls. “Taking the plunge and fully committing to my company forced me to grow the business. I can remember countless times having to step outside of the classroom to take conference calls with clients and pretending to be in ‘my office.’”

VMP has seen substantial growth in the few years since Cascio’s graduation, and Cascio, in partnership with his father, has worked with well-known clients like Microsoft, AT&T and Twitter. Cascio was even able to reconnect with UCF through a project with the Florida Consortium of Metropolitan Research Universities.

“On this shoot, we had the opportunity to collaborate with UCF on producing short interview segments, highlight films, instructor presentation videos, and photos,” said Cascio. “These events focused on subjects such as active learning and accelerating transfer success for students.”

Cascio credits his professional and personal successes to his experience at UCF and support of his fiancée and UCF alumna, Chloe Piersall ’15. His advice for current students is “try to absorb the information from the classes you’re taking, because you would be surprised how helpful the information can be in your professional life.” He also emphasized the importance of networking both on and off campus, which, in his experience, led to different and exciting professional projects.

In 2018, Cascio launched the VMP Student Filmfest to help provide winning student films with a cash award that can go toward the student’s continued education and help pay for production equipment. Alex hopes that the VMP Student FilmFest will give students an opportunity to showcase their work, but also allow them to set themselves apart when interviewing for jobs or internships.

The VMP Student Filmfest deadline has been extended to Nov. 24.

“Our VMP Filmfest was created to help give students a platform to showcase their creativity,” stated Reuben Rogak ’14, chief editor of VMP. “Alex understood firsthand what it was like as a digital media student and the financial burden of equipment costs and he is excited to play a role in offering an opportunity to current Knights to help with their financial costs.”

With every project that Cascio works on, he always remembers advice he received from his father: “Never compromise quality. If you truly want your work to stand out from the competition, you have to put in the time and maximum effort.” Charge on, Alex Cascio!

From Atlanta to New York, Theatre UCF alumna makes her Broadway debut in new musical The Prom

Theatre UCF alumna on Broadway
Jerusha Cavazos ’14 is making her Broadway debut in The Prom, a new musical comedy about acceptance and love.

The annual springtime tradition of prom is already a big deal – a crucial over-the-top social milestone for most high school students. Some students fuss over cummerbund choices, others fret about dinner plans – and some worry if their choice of a date will be met with acceptance, or conflict. The new musical The Prom opening on Broadway this fall follows the story of a lesbian student who just wants to take her girlfriend to prom in a small, close-minded town that won’t allow it – and the band of Broadway stars who try to make it happen.

Musical theatre alumna Jerusha Cavazos ’14 first had a role on the show Atlanta on FX in April, performed in Jesus Christ Superstar in Chicago through May, and is now making her Broadway debut in The Prom surrounded by industry greats. Even with such a successful whirlwind year, she stopped by the Performing Arts Center to give new Musical Theatre students a masterclass and take a moment to reflect on her roles, her journey, and her own prom.

Congratulations on your Broadway debut! How does it feel to be getting ready to take the stage?

I have so many mixed emotions right now. I am so grateful and excited … literally bursting with joy. At the same time, I’m nervous and still in shock that I get to go on a journey that I’ve been dreaming about since I was 10. There are days I walk to the theatre and ring the stage door buzzer with tears in my eyes. I’ve walked past many Broadway stage doors dreaming of what it would be like to enter it as an artist performing on that stage. I get to do that now. It feels surreal and I’m trying to be present in every moment, taking it all in, with so much gratitude.

Tell us about the show and the role you’re playing.

The show is called The Prom. In a nutshell, it’s about acceptance and love. This story will have you laughing so hard you can’t breathe – and then, it will have you crying. It is moving, honest and relevant. I play one of the high school kids in the show, in the ensemble.

Are there any memories from your own prom that inspired you in this production?

In high school, prom was SUCH a big deal. Finding the perfect dress, the date, how you were going to arrive, the after-party, etc. I remember going to so many different dress stores with my mother. My best friend and I planned out a party bus to pick up all our friends, and we went all out. These memories really help me with my character … when I remember just how important prom was to me then, it’s easy to really tap into the brain of a high school teen who just wants to have the best senior year and make memories.

What’s the most exciting thing about being in a new, original Broadway production?

There are so many exciting things about being in a new Broadway show, it’s hard for me to choose just one! So, I’ll make a quick list:

  • Meeting and working with the writing team – this is so rare, and it’s so special to be part of.
  • Working with Casey Nicholaw and his team. I can’t express how amazing it is to watch this team work together. It’s pure magic!
  • Recording the original cast album – a bucket list item for sure!
  • Working with designers. Getting to look at costume sketches that were designed with me in mind is just out of this world. Trying on wigs that were made for me is amazing. The design team are incredibly talented people.
  • And, there are also about 13 people making their Broadway debuts. This is so special. The energy backstage and on-stage is electric. The Broadway vets are so excited for us and I am thrilled that I am experiencing this life-changing moment with this group of people.

You recently had a part on FX’s Atlanta. How is being on the screen different than being on the stage?

I LOVED WORKING ON ATLANTA. Donald Glover is a genius and so generous, kind and very collaborative!

When I was shooting Atlanta, we would be on set for about 12 hours a day. The biggest difference is that in TV, you have to nail your action perfectly once, but you’re exhausted once the day is done because you’ve worked on scenes for 12-14 hours. Once you get the shot you can move on to the next. In theatre, you have to recreate those moments every night, eight times a week. This requires a discipline that is individual to each actor. How you maintain and balance energy, keep moments fresh and honest, preserve your voice and body, etc. is unique to each actor.

How did your time at UCF prepare you for your career as an actor?

I’m so grateful for my experience at UCF. I think that any program you enter as an actor becomes what you make of it. And I made the most out of my time at UCF. I took advantage of the many resources that UCF has. I did independent studies with professors and worked on perfecting skill sets I knew I needed to make it. Here’s the great thing about UCF: if you really want it, the professors are there to help guide you to do so. You just have to show up.

Do you have any advice for someone pursuing an acting career?

Just do it! Don’t let anyone or anything deter you. My dad always told me, “If you feel you have something to say, say it; if not, get off the stage!” I’ve tried to live by that. It’s challenging because our business is so overwhelming at times and it can look impossible. But if you have any amount of talent and technique mixed with some good old-fashioned courage, you can make it. And it doesn’t matter where that happens. That’s the beauty of our business – there are many places where we can make that happen: New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville and Orlando. Just go out there and do it! Also, don’t compare your journey to anyone else’s. What’s meant for you is yours and cannot be taken away.

Broadway’s new musical comedy with issues,” The Prom begins previews October 23 and opens November 15 at Longacre Theatre in New York. Tickets, information and more at theprommusical.com.

Family Guy: Alumnus Unites Local Dads With Inclusive Fatherhood Group

Photo of Marlon Gutierrez and his daughter
Marlon Gutierrez ’11 was inspired to start a local fatherhood support group after his daughter, Isabella, was born in 2016

By Jenna Marina Lee

ORLANDO, Fla. – Sunday won’t be the first Father’s Day that Marlon Gutierrez ’11 celebrates, but this one will hold its own special milestone. This Father’s Day will be the first for his all-inclusive fatherhood community, Orlando Dads Group.

The UCF College of Business alumnus is a first-generation American – the son of Nicaraguan immigrants – and the first in his family to earn a college education. But he says becoming a first-time father nearly two years ago to his daughter Isabella was an even bigger leap into uncharted territory. He knew he needed help.

There is no shortage of mothers groups in Orlando. With a click of a button and a few seconds, you can find playgroups, breastfeeding-support groups, emotional- support groups, first-time mother groups, Mommy and Me classes, tribes for mothers of twins and triplets, single-mothers groups, mothers of preschoolers and mother meetups.

The same Google search for dads? Not so much.

Not until Gutierrez stepped in.

“I wanted to be there just as much as my wife was there for our daughter. I was having a hard time figuring out where are these people who have a similar identity that I can connect with? That’s when I realized Orlando still hadn’t developed that yet. Sometimes you have to create the things that you want,” he says, crediting his wife Stefany for the words of wisdom.

Orlando Dads Unite
He reached out to City Dads Group, a national organization that originated in New York City in 2008 and within five years grew to more than 900 fathers. In 2013, the organization expanded the concept and now fosters 34 groups across the nation in more than 20 states.

With City Dads Group’s support, Gutierrez’s Orlando chapter has grown to more than 85 members in its first year. There are no dues or minimum participation requirements.

The only prerequisite is being a dad.

“It’s an all-inclusive group,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a stay-at-home dad, working dad, gay, straight, young or older, single or married or a foster dad — you just have to be a dad.”

The group organizes three events per month. One will be held June 16 at 2 p.m. at the South Trail Branch Library (4600 S. Orange Blossom Trail), where the group plans to enjoy a free performance by DAPS, a local group of freestyle rappers and improvisers who use hip-hop to put on a comedy show.

Gatherings like these are labeled “family events,” which encourage dads to bring significant others, extended family or friends along with their children.

The second meetup of a month is categorized as a “Dads’ Night Out.” These meetups are solely for the fathers. Gutierrez planned one recently at an arcade lounge in downtown Orlando and another at Winter Garden’s Crooked Can Brewery.

The third outing of a month is for dads and their kids. A recent pizza night in Waterford Lakes was a big hit, and an upcoming movie date for a free showing of Sing is scheduled at CMX Cinemas in downtown Orlando on June 26 at 9:30 a.m.

Because the group is still relatively new, Gutierrez’s biggest challenge is figuring out what programming works best and where. His group includes fathers from Winter Garden to East Orlando.

Better Together
Some fathers connected with the group for the same reason Gutierrez started it — they sought a supportive and relatable community. Some have joined it because their wives enthusiastically nudged them into it.

Regardless of the reason, Gutierrez tries his best to hook the dads’ interest early because he knows how helpful it can be to have a support system.

“There’s no manual or guide on how to be a parent,” he says. “I think [this group] has taught me a lot about myself, and I realized that I had to make a lot of changes. I was very much focused on my career because that’s what society expected me to do. Now, being more open with a community that has supportive fathers and environments like the City Dads’ network, I’ve been able to find other dads out there trying to do the same thing. It’s OK not to be so focused on my career. I can be balanced on my career and family and travels and make my life what I want it to be.”

Time management is key in achieving that balance, and he has found that work-life integration works best for him.

He volunteers with the UCF College of Business Alumni Chapter as a mentor for current students. He started a short-term corporate rental company with his wife called Orlando City Corporate Housing, which Stephany now manages.

He works full time from home for Student Loan Hero, a resource and loan-advisement company, where Isabella has become an honorary “employee.” When the toddler plops on her father’s lap for virtual meetings, she is greeted by name by Gutierrez’s co-workers. He says they are all supportive of his balancing act.

Although his schedule takes some careful coordinating, he has high hopes for the fatherhood group, which he plans to keep growing and make an integral part of the community.

“I want this group to also be able to paint a different picture on what fatherhood looks like. Dads can get involved. We do care, and there’s a lot of things that we’re doing,” he says. “More than our enrollment numbers, I want to have a group that feels powerful together because we’re sharing something that’s pretty amazing.”

2018 NFL Draft: Brought To You By UCF Alumni

Photo of UCF alumni Brandon Naidus and Eric DeSalvo
Brandon Naidus ’12 (left, Arizona Cardinals) and Eric DeSalvo ’09 (right, UCF Knights) are social media managers who covered every big moment of the 2018 NFL Draft.

By Jenna Marina Lee

ORLANDO, Fla. (April 30, 2018) – While four Knights fulfilled lifelong dreams of hearing their names called during the 2018 NFL Draft, another pair of Knights were working behind the scenes to capture every moment.

Alumni Eric DeSalvo ’09 and Brandon Naidus ’12 are the maestros of the social media accounts for their respective teams.

DeSalvo, who majored in interpersonal/organizational communication within the College of Sciences, is the assistant athletics director for #content within the UCF Athletics brand advancement office.

Naidus, a management alumnus from the Burnett Honors College, is the social media manager for the Arizona Cardinals and previously worked with the Jacksonville Jaguars’ social media department for four years.

Photo of UCF alumni Eric DeSalvo and Brandon Naidus
Eric DeSalvo (left) and Brandon Naidus (right) during ChargeOn Tour

The two share more than a similar job. In fact, Naidus was an undergraduate student intern for UCF Athletics Communications when DeSalvo took his first job out of graduate school in 2011 as the UCF assistant director of communications for the baseball and volleyball teams.

They keep in touch often, and that was certainly the case over the weekend as they both worked to churn out quality content worthy of viral numbers.

DeSalvo and UCF were one of the select college brands whose digital content teams were invited to the draft at AT&T Stadium in Dallas. Meanwhile, Naidus and his department covered the draft remotely from the media conference room in the Arizona Cardinals facility.

They still might be slightly sleep deprived from the big weekend, but they took some time to share a glimpse into the strategy, the creativity and the heart it takes every day to do their jobs.

You both have covered drafts before in some capacity. How did you apply what you’ve learned from those experiences and adapt your strategy for success this year?
DeSalvo: “The first draft I was really involved with was when Blake Bortles was drafted in 2014 and went third overall. We had a template created for a graphic that allowed us to interchange the team he was drafted to. It also had the round and the overall pick. People might not remember, but I screwed that up. I put he was taken sixth overall because I had put that in the template as a placeholder, and when he was picked third, I forgot to change it and didn’t realize it until about three minutes after I tweeted it. A coworker spotted it, and I had to delete the tweet with well over 100 retweets. I fixed it and put it back out and all was OK.

“That actually happened again the following year when Breshad Perriman went in the first round. It said the 25th pick when he was the 26th. So, we have learned, you don’t worry about rounds and picks. It’s all about what team the the guy is going to. After that, I measure our success on how much original, on-site content we can get and if we can get video or photos straight from the guys to show that these lifelong dreams that came true. We knew we were going to have our stuff prepared, but success in my mind, was getting more of the stuff that hits the hearts of our fans and the NFL team’s fans.”

Naidus: “My first draft I was wide-eyed, not sure what to expect. I was in charge of updating the website and handling all social media postings for the Jaguars in 2013 when I was an intern. In 2014, I still did that and that was the year they took Blake and Storm (Johnson). This year was the sixth draft I have been a part of, and I was responsible for leading the charge of what kind of social content we created and put out there. It’s interesting to see how things evolve. In 2013, I was preparing headshots for the website. Now I’m preparing graphics and tweets that can be shared by our current players to welcome our draft picks to the team – which a few years ago wasn’t even a thought. We want to be informative and engaging. Our fans have a lot of outlets they can go to for news, but we want them to come to us first.”

What kind of preparation do you need to do before a big event like the draft?
DeSalvo: “Twitter is always going to be first because it’s the immediate news. Before the draft, we uploaded 32 versions of a highlight video for each player, for each team they could potentially go to. We had seven guys who could have been drafted. So seven guys multiplied by 32 possible teams meant we uploaded 224 into the back end of Twitter, before the draft, with the message of the post already crafted. I had Megan Herboth in the communications department send that out from Orlando because I was on site in Dallas. I don’t ever want to jeopardize connectivity because every second is precious when it comes to getting this post out. People can’t wait to celebrate big news. Having it out immediately and accurately is the biggest part to our success when it comes to those big numbers.”

Naidus: “I basically looked at every mock draft and said ‘OK, what are positions of need for our team?’ and created content based on the top few players at every single position. You try and do as much work on the front end to save yourself on the back end to keep from getting trampled. We had a whole list of content with all the pieces we planned on putting out leading up to the draft; the days of the draft; and the day after the draft. All the graphics, all the video elements. Could they pick someone we didn’t anticipate them to pick? Sure. But you prepare as best you can and then I assigned responsibilities to our social team so everyone knew what they were responsible for handling.”

Many have said they expect that this year’s draft will forever be known as the year of Shaquem Griffin. Eric, what was it like to be there to experience it?
DeSalvo: “It was pretty incredible to see the amount of coverage he got. He was a day-3 pick that received top-5 pick coverage. It was a roller coaster because he initially wasn’t there to hear his name called. He was with his family at the hotel. So, I was determined to get crowd reaction from whatever team he went to. Seattle had two really close picks back to back in the fifth round, so I figured it would be his time more than ever, hedged my bet and waited by their section in the stadium. Sure enough, when he got picked they went crazy. Being able to get a different angle – that in-the-moment reaction – was awesome to capture. When he did get to the stadium, it was really neat just being able to see everybody yelling his name as he was riding in his golf cart to go to the ESPN and NFL Network sets. Everyone from security guards to producers wanted to say hi and congratulate him. A lot of people congratulated his mom. So being able to experience that and just see the love he received from every single person first hand was pretty incredible. ”

What does the average person not know about your job?
DeSalvo: “The amount of people you collaborate with. They don’t understand how many people are contributing to what we’re putting out there. The amount of edits that can happen. The amount of stuff that’s done on the fly. You have to be so reactionary in this business. You always have to be on. I mean, I had no idea when Alabama was giving their rings to their players, and all of a sudden, we’re getting bombarded by people, including Alabama players, tagging us in pictures of their rings. I’m flattered they are thinking about us, but to be able to pivot on the fly and come up with some replies to people, it’s a lifestyle. It’s not just a job. There’s a lot more to it than just having fun and posting messages, and sometimes it’s very tough to turn it off. Social media can consume your life. Shout out to my wife, Jessica, for putting up with me in this field. I know she enjoys seeing me love what I do, but I can’t appreciate her enough.”

Naidus: “Probably the amount of hours that go into it. I’ve had drafts where I’ve worked over 50 hours in three days. The preparation that goes into it from a content perspective – how prepared you have to be on the front end in order to succeed as everything is happening. It’s not just grabbing a cool video as a guy walks by. I would be shocked if any team has a heads up on who their picks are. I had no idea who we were taking this year. In the six years I’ve done this, I’ve only had a heads up once for a first-round pick. People probably think, ‘Oh if he works for the team, he probably knows.’ Not really. It doesn’t really work like that.”

Your role means you’re often the voice of your team. How do you feel about having that responsibility?
DeSalvo: “I’m in a unique position because I’m an alumnus of the school I work for. People give back to their alma maters in different ways: monetarily, service and by working there. I feel like this is the biggest way I’ve been able to give back to UCF – a school that’s been a part of my life since day one with my dad graduating from the Class of ’75. I’m able to utilize my passion on a daily basis because I’m a fan, too. Whenever we’re putting out messages and we’re ‘yelling’ in all caps, it’s because we feel that way. I’m not just putting that out to fake emotion. It’s real. And that’s what awesome because there are so many people who work here and graduated from here who feel the same way. Being at the controls of us in our golden years right now, that’s something that I wouldn’t change for the world. It’s my way of giving back to my alma mater in maybe one of the most unique ways possible.”

Naidus: “There’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of pressure, so it’s a little nerve-wracking, but it’s exciting, too, and it has offered me a lot of unique opportunities. Last year we drafted Haason Reddick, and I was sitting at the press conference next to his mother, who was crying because her son realized his dream. In that moment, it’s hard not to get choked up. Being a part of such a special day for people who have worked their whole lives toward something, it’s really cool to be a part of that.”

Share your most memorable behind-the-scenes moment from this year’s draft.
DeSalvo: “I think it was riding in the freight elevator with the Griffin family and getting the picture where I said, yup you guys broke twitter. It was just so quiet. Nobody was really talking, and they decided to go through their phones and check social media really quick. I’ve always wanted a picture like that because I was envisioning in my head it would look cool in black and white. Weirdly, two of the top moments of my career have happened in a freight elevator. The other was my first trip to New York City last year and riding in the freight elevator at Madison Square Garden standing next to Johnny Dawkins. I remember thinking to myself, he’s probably ridden in this elevator so many times, and knowing the kind of people who have gone through this elevator. So it came full circle again this weekend. That moment was definitely up there.”

Naidus: “The coolest aspect for me was how quickly and efficiently our social media team produced content. The person that leads our efforts with social media videos, Jesse, was working his first NFL Draft. While this was the second draft for our social graphics guy, Jackson, this was the first time he was responsible for creating the bulk of our graphics for the draft. Over the three days, there is so much information and so much content, it can get overwhelming at times. I thought they handled it incredibly well. Their sense of accomplishment after the last pick was made was a great moment. I thought our entire broadcasting/digital department, which we fall under, churned out great content pieces for various mediums leading up to and during the NFL Draft.”

Alumni Impressed By Engineering, Computer Science Senior Design Showcase

Photo of six-legged surveillance robot
During the Spring 2018 Senior Design Showcase, “SigSent,” a six-legged surveillance robot, displayed its ability to walk on rough terrain and roll on smooth surfaces.

By Jenna Marina Lee

ORLANDO, Fla. (April 20, 2018) – After Josh Haley ’12 ’14MS saw projects at April 19’s College of Engineering and Computer Science Senior Design Showcase, he’s not so sure that his own project at the inaugural showcase in 2012 would measure up anymore.

“Things that were really, really cool projects when I was an undergrad are now just kind of ‘Eh, I’ve seen cooler,’” Haley said. “The students coming from UCF every year are getting smarter and faster at implementing complex systems. The university has really kept pace on the increasing demands of this industry.”

Haley, a software engineer and assistant technical staff lead for SoarTech, was one of 32 alumni to offer their expertise as judges at the senior showcase this year.

The event featured 123 teams and 600 students. An additional 130 students from nine other engineering colleges presented 25 additional projects for the first Florida-Wide Student Engineering Design Invitational.

The partnership shows how strong engineering and computer science talent is being developed at universities to fuel Florida’s innovation economy. UCF is the nation’s No. 1 workforce supplier to the aerospace and defense industry and is among the nation’s top producers of engineers and computer scientists.

Photo of Josh Haley
Josh Haley ’12 ’14MS, software engineer and assistant technical staff lead for SoarTech

“I think we really impressed the visiting colleges with the scope of our senior design showcase given how large of a university we are and how many teams we have and how well the event came together,” Haley said. “I thought it was a great opportunity to see the focus of the senior projects at some of the universities in the state. I’m familiar with the awesome work that is being done at UCF, but I had no idea of some of the great medial technology applications coming out of Miami and USF.”

Haley is the chair of the UCF College of Engineering and Computer Science Alumni Chapter and previously spent three years as the communications chair for the group. He said many members of the chapter, himself included, enjoy mentoring and interacting with the current students on a regular basis.

He can still recall the stress and workload the students undertake in pulling off a successful project.

Before he become the first in his family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree, he developed his own project – an autonomous robotic rover with a metal detection element that safely navigated a synthetic minefield and reported back successful paths.

The showcase now holds a different vibe to him in his role as a judge.

“It’s a fun event where I can see what’s going on with the student projects, and not just within my own discipline, but across the entire college,” he said. “I think now I have a much greater appreciation for all the wonderful things the other disciplines are doing that I probably didn’t have as an undergrad.”

He said he believes the senior design showcase will continue to improve and grow as the project complexities continue to increase and the students consistently turn out high-quality work. As for the Florida-Wide Student Engineering Design Invitational, he hopes that will become an annual event.

“The statewide invitational allows more cross-pollination of project ideas and priorities. As part of the alumni judging component, we would absolutely would love to have a Florida Cup that travels school to school based on who claims the coolest project for that year.”

UCF Alumni Building A More Sustainable Orlando

Alumni Chris Castro and Brittany Sellers
UCF alumni Chris Castro and Brittany Sellers lead the Green Works initiatives for City of Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. Photo courtesy of City of Orlando

By Jenna Marina Lee

ORLANDO, Fla. (April 19, 2018) — The sounds of construction can be heard on the third floor of Orlando City Hall. The building is being retrofitted with energy efficient technology as part of the City of Orlando’s sustainability initiatives.

It’s one of the many projects currently underway and supervised by sustainability director Chris Castro ’10 and sustainability project manager Brittany Sellers ’13MA ’16PhD. From the moment the UCF alumni step in their offices, they are literally surrounded by the results of their labor of love.

Their daily mission, especially on April 22’s Earth Day, is to transform Orlando into one of the most environmentally friendly cities in the country. That’s not exactly easy to do when one of the world’s top tourist destinations is also Forbes’ fourth-fastest growing city in America for 2018.

“When you look at Orlando from a long-term sustainability standpoint, 30-40-50-plus years from now, the amount of energy, the amount of water we’re consuming, the amount of waste that we are generating, is unsustainable,” Castro says. “At a certain point, our economy could become impacted negatively if we don’t start proactively paying attention to that.”

Easy Being Green
Castro and Sellers have been paying attention for quite a while.

Castro, the son of palm tree farmers in Miami, arrived at UCF in 2007 as an undeclared major. In his first year, he enrolled in a class taught by Penelope Canan, a nationally recognized professor for her environmental and sociology research. After taking her environmental sociology course, he knew he wanted to dedicate his life and career to sustainability.

He jumped in immediately by starting IDEAS for UCF, a sustainability-focused student organization. The group welcomes students of all majors and interests, and it focuses on originating solutions to make UCF’s campus more sustainable.

One of its first major achievements was receiving a commitment from President John C. Hitt and UCF to become a carbon neutral campus by 2050. IDEAS worked on programming and policies to help make strides toward that goal.

“I saw UCF as this unbelievable opportunity. For me, it was the best Petri dish that any student could ever imagine,” Castro says. “Everything I was doing through campus, I’ve now tried to expand it and take it to real life and the municipal government.”

One of the group’s programs, the Kill-A-Watt energy conservation competition, challenged students living in dorms to compete against each other in energy consumption reduction.

Sellers heard about the project as a human factors psychology doctoral student and wanted to study the challenge Castro helped implement as part of her dissertation.

She examined the project with a behavioral lens. How were students living in older dorms competing against students in newly constructed dorms? What if students couldn’t easily access sockets to unplug electronics? Did they know what the challenge on campus meant in the bigger picture of impacting climate change globally?

“Information does not equal action. People can know to do the right thing but there are all these other factors, and we need to look at what that means. What are the elements that can make it more possible?” Sellers says. “My transition to the department of sustainability at the city was pretty seamless even though I had come in as a psychology researcher. It might not seem like the most logical jump. But from the interdisciplinary approach I had in my education, it all made sense. A lot of that was fostered at UCF.”

People, Planet and Prosperity
Castro joined City of Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer’s sustainability department full time in 2014, and Sellers joined soon after in 2015 before graduating with her doctorate a year later.

The two have brought their expertise to Dyer’s Green Works initiative, which began in 2007. Every day, these Knights and their team – which includes energy project manager Ian LaHiff ’09, sustainability associate Joe England ’09 ’12MA and public outreach coordinator Daniel Friedline ’13 – are shaping the policies and actions that make Orlando and Central Florida a more livable, vibrant and sustainable place to live.

“Sustainability is about changing that mindset to get people looking at people, planet and prosperity. It’s about the triple-bottom line: social, economic and environment,” Castro says. “The fact is, we won’t have an economy if our people are dying and are sick. We won’t have an economy if the natural resources in our environment that we depend on aren’t there. So what cities are positioning to do in our office and our roles is to figure out how we can change our operations internally, and externally, how we can change our culture to embrace the triple-bottom line.”

The first phase of the Green Works program focused internally on city operations. The city knew it needed to buy in to what it was asking of its residents, so it began upgrading municipal building features to minimize energy consumption. It lowered water usage, diverted waste and transitioned its fleet vehicles to alternative fuels.

In 2013, Green Works took what it learned from its internal changes and applied its success outward to the community to foster a culture that embraced sustainability.

To keep from getting overwhelmed, Castro and Sellers focus on making progress in six key areas: energy and green buildings; local food systems; solid waste; livability (planting trees, pedestrian and bicycle trails, expanding parks); transportation; and water. Within each area are policies and actions needed to make their goals happen by 2040.

There are measures like developing plans for solar generation on rooftops in support of Orlando’s 100 percent renewable energy commitment – one of 50 cities in the country to undertake such a monumental task. Or transforming all downtown LYMMO buses into all electric zero-metric buses. Or adding electric motorcycles for the Orlando Police Department. Or addressing food insecurity with farmers markets that accept SNAP benefits. Or fleet farming, exactly like the food being grown in plant beds outside of UCF’s Student Union.

“We could be here all day,” Sellers says as Castro and she list one example after another.

Castro and Sellers estimate their office juggles 40-50 projects simultaneously at any given time, and even though the work is demanding, Sellers says she is excited to be part of the team and takes prides in the work they accomplish every day, especially in the city where her alma mater is located.

While some may say they’re ‘saving the world,’ she prefers to look at it from a slightly different perspective.

“I like when we go out and do good things, you see that light spark in other people. You ignite that desire to do the right thing, the good thing. So I like to frame that as ‘amplifying the good that already exists in the world,’” she says. “Sometimes we’re changing hearts and minds and there’s an evolution, but at the same time, for a lot of people, this already lies within them, and we’re just kind of empowering and enabling that in them.”

Power of One
While they are certainly leading the charge, they want everyone to understand the role each individual can play in helping the city’s progress toward a better future for Orlando.

Castro points to a phone call he received recently from a concerned citizen about an oak tree that was scheduled to be cut down because of development. The individual asked if something could be done to stop trees like the oak from being cut down in the future.

Now, Castro’s team along with the parks and planning teams will collaborate on exploring ways to improve tree ordinances and protect Orlando’s urban forest.

“That all happened because of one individual. That voice goes an extremely long way,” Castro says.

They’ve made it a priority to provide tools and information to the public on their website www.cityoforlando.net/greenworks as well as host community forums to encourage others to use their voices.

Castro and Sellers both agree that the single biggest aspect about sustainability that people do not realize is the effect one individual can have in making a difference.

“Changing out your light bulbs, changing one degree in your home [thermostat], unplugging appliances, changing your diet, carpooling or ride sharing or alternative modes of transit,” Castro says, “little by little, these actions in a collective sense, make a huge global impact.”