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.”

From Spidey to Superstar

Theatre alumnus Justin Sargent ’08, who starred in the Broadway production of Spider-Man, will perform in NBC’s live broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar on April 1

By Jenna Marina Lee

UCF theatre alumnus Justin Sargent ’08 is on a first-name basis with Academy Award, Golden Globe, Grammy and Tony Award winner John Legend thanks to his role in Jesus Christ Superstar, set to air live April 1 on NBC at 8 p.m.

As a priest in the ensemble and the understudy to Legend, who is playing Jesus, Sargent has spent the past six weeks rehearsing and shaping the network’s latest concert special, which also features Sara Bareilles and Alice Cooper.

Sargent, from Trinity, Florida, has played the lead roles in Broadway productions of Rock of Ages and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, so he is no stranger to performing on a big stage. But the magnitude of this one is starting to hit him.

“Even though there’s all these amazing celebrities and people popping in and out of rehearsals, the scale of it never hit me until I saw an interview that John was doing and he was talking about it,” Sargent said, “and I realized, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be seen by millions of people. This is going to be filmed live. How are we going to do this?!”

Sargent shared details from rehearsals, what it feels like to have super powers and why Cooper yelling in his face for two straight hours was one of the best moments of his life.

Q: How did you get your first big break into the industry?
“After college, I worked in the theme parks and at a singing-waiter Italian restaurant in Fashion Square Mall. A new Spider-Man musical was going to Broadway and an open-call audition was going to be held in Orlando. I was the 180th person to audition. U2 wrote the music for the show, so when the casting directors asked what I was singing, I said, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For by U2, and they said, ‘Out of 180 people, you’re the first person to sing a U2 song, so already you’re off to a great start!’ My audition went really well, so I got a call back. Eventually, I was asked to travel to New York to audition for the creative team. They asked if I had plans of moving to the city, and when I said eventually, they said I should do it sooner than later.

“So six months later I moved to New York. I emailed the casting directors from Telsey + Company that I had met in Orlando. They brought me in for Rock of Ages, and about nine months after I moved to the city I was doing my first Broadway show.”

Q: After your stint on Rock of Ages you did end up taking over the role of Spider-Man. What’s it like to be a superhero?
“I was a huge comic book fan and a huge fan of Spider-Man when I was a kid. I remember [during the play] being in the costume every night and looking down at my hands with the red-and-black webbed gloves and thinking, ‘This is crazy, I’m Spider-Man. I’m being hooked up to wires and flying around, this is the best!’ It was amazing.”

Q: What’s been the coolest moment for you in working with the celebrity cast of Jesus Christ Superstar?
“When I was 14 years old, my mother took me to see Alice Cooper on his tour. We sat in the second row of Ruth Eckerd Hall (Clearwater, Florida). Alice Cooper did his whole show in front of us – I could reach out and touch him if I wanted to. At the end of the show, they roll out this giant guillotine and ‘decapitate’ him, and his bass player picks up his head and drinks blood out of it and spits it all over my mom and I. I was hooked as soon as it happened. I was like, ‘Oh. My. God. That was the most amazing thing in the world!’ He came to our rehearsal one day, and he watched us do a run-through of the show. I was singing the Jesus role, and he came up to me afterward and gave me a big hug. He was very complimentary and very kind, and I got to tell him that story.

“There’s a part of our show when Jesus is brought in front of King Herod, and he does this big flashy number in front of Jesus and taunts him quite a lot. So after I told him my story, for about two hours, I was just on my knees pretending to be Jesus while Alice Cooper screamed in my face. And it was one of the most surreal, amazing experiences. I’ll never forget it.”

Q: NBC has produced several of these throwback live -productions. Why do you think they are so popular?
“I really believe that entertainment, in general, is cyclical. Back in the earlier part of the 20th century, the movie-musical was a huge part of the entertainment industry. Going all the way back to Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers and then of course with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye and all these musical performers, these things were part of our industry from the start. And it’s been a long time since that’s been represented in pop culture. NBC took a risk with Sound of Music (2013) being the first one that was done on TV in 56 years, and it really hit a chord with people. This is so nostalgic. I think it was one of those things that people realized, ‘Oh yeah, this is a thing! This is something that we all enjoy!’”

Q: When you look back on your involvement with Jesus Christ Superstar, how do you think you’ll feel about the experience?
“I am having the time of my life. I’ve starred in Broadway shows. I’ve done work that I’m proud of. I’ve done work that I’ve been challenged by and that I’ve enjoyed. But nothing has felt quite like this. This means a lot to me. This musical, this score, this rock album is something that’s been in my life since I was a child. My parents introduced me to this when I was young, so it feels like home to me. To be part of the process that creates this thing for a new generation is so extremely special, and I honestly cannot believe I’m getting to do this. Just going to rehearsal every single day is exhausting and challenging for so many reasons, but it never ever, ever, ever feels like work.”

Q: How did your education at UCF help prepare you for a career in theatre?
“The Bachelor of Fine Arts track in musical theatre at UCF accepts a certain number of students every year, so it’s a very hands-on program. You become very involved with your professors and your fellow students. Having that personal touch be my introduction to the art form was a pretty unique experience. It was wonderful and helped shape the way I look at what I do. I try to look at everything as if it’s a cohesive family unit. Each project has its own family and we all have to work with each other and for each other in order to make things happen. I think that’s one of the great things about going to a program like UCF. It’s so personal.”

The Buzz On Alumna Kristin Harris

Photo of alumna Kristin Harris '11
Advertising and public relations alumna Kristin Harris is living the life she always dreamed of as BuzzFeed’s celebrity editor and head of talent relations

By Jenna Marina Lee

ORLANDO, Fla. (March 1, 2018) — On any given day, you can find Kristin Harris ’11 interviewing A-listers such as Ryan Gosling, Rihanna, Nicole Kidman, Bill Murray and Ed Sheeran.

As BuzzFeed’s celebrity editor and head of talent-relations, Harris has the job that pop culture nerds dream about.

When she was 10 years old, the Lake Mary, Florida, native pictured her career as it is today, and though it’s taken a lot of hustle and hard work, the advertising and public relations alumna has made it her reality.

Harris broke into the industry during her first year at UCF when she was selected by Teen Vogue for a program the magazine was spearheading to collaborate on a project with a skin-care company.

The pivotal moment to jumpstart her current career, however, happened two summers later. She emailed more than a dozen editors to beg for an internship. Without any published work to her name, she created a blog and wrote sample articles in the hopes it would be enough to convince an editor to hire her.

She received a reply from Eva Chen, one of the fashion industry’s youngest editors to lead a national American magazine. Two days later, Harris flew to New York for an interview and was offered an internship at Teen Vogue about eight years ago.

“I’m lucky she took a chance on me. It sounds overdramatic now, but at the time, an internship at Teen Vogue – it was the heyday of [MTV’s show] The Hills – it was a really big deal,” she said. “It was the year magazines started creating an online presence. It was the beginning of everything that exists now. She let me do whatever I wanted. … Without that experience, I would say I would not be where I am right now.”

In addition to the working knowledge she gained through her internships, Harris continued to round out her resume with campus involvement through student government and the study-abroad program. Her time at UCF helped transform her from a quiet teenager to a go-getter.

“I grew up so much in those four years and in this industry and my job, I really truly needed that,” Harris said. “It was really through my experience at UCF — the friendships I made, the professors I met and the opportunities I had — that I grew into the kind of person who could go after her dreams and make them happen.”

She moved to England to further her education at the London College of Fashion. When she came back stateside, she job hunted for a year in New York City.

She remembers a day that seems so long ago now, sitting by the water in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn contemplating her life. Despite her hard work and effort, a job remained elusive.

What was she doing? Should give up on her dream? Map out a new life plan?

Then she checked her inbox.

“I randomly got an email from an editor at Seventeen magazine. She blindly emailed me and said, ‘Someone passed on your resume, I’m hiring for this editor position. Are you interested?’” Harris said. “I still, to this day, don’t know who passed on my resume, which is why networking and hustling and staying involved is so important. Because you just never truly know what’s going to happen.”

She worked at Seventeen for a year, and although she was wasn’t actively looking to leave the magazine, she applied to BuzzFeed in 2014 on a whim for an associate celebrity editor position. Known for its creative, fun and engaging content, the digital media powerhouse scared her. Harris said she didn’t think she was good enough.

“I’ve learned that the things that scare me the most, of what I’m most fearful of, are the ones that are always worth it the most, at the end of the day,” she said.

After two years, she helped create a role coordinating talent relations. She attended her first Grammy Awards in 2017, has navigated red carpets with Blake Lively, and flew from New York City to Hawaii and back in the span of 72 hours to interview Zac Efron on the set of a movie.

It’s not a typical life, but it’s the wonderful one she pursued and finally made her own.

“In this world, your imagination is your opportunity,” Harris said. “Whatever you dream up you can make happen.”

Read more about Harris’ biggest career highlights in the spring issue of Pegasus magazine.

More To Her Story

Former Order of Pegasus recipient Kaitlyn Chana ’13 is using her personal experience with eating disorders to create preventative care resources for mental health education.

By Jenna Marina Lee

ORLANDO, Fla. (Feb. 23, 2018) – On the surface, Kaitlyn Chana ’13 had it all together. In fact, she basically owned life.

The former straight-A student at Lake Brantley High School started her own non-profit as a teenager that sent cards of kindness to hospitalized children. She was a member of UCF’s President’s Leadership Council, LEAD Scholars and received UCF’s most prestigious student award, Order of Pegasus.

The radio-TV alumna was even selected as one of 20 people to carry the Olympic torch in 2010 for the Vancouver Winter Games through Calgary, Canada, because of her charity work.

Yet, underneath the surface, Chana battled through three different eating disorders over 10 years until the day she came to a very hard-hitting realization.

“With eating disorders, it’s life or death. If you don’t pick one, unfortunately one is going to overcome and dominate. I didn’t want to die,” she said. “I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be a reporter that’s telling meaningful stories.”

Today, she’s doing just that and recently returned to campus as part of LEAD Scholars’ Leadership Week to share her personal story and her mission to change the stigma around eating disorders and mental health.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, eating disorders are serious but treatable mental illnesses that can affect people of every age, sex, gender, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic group. No one knows exactly what causes them, but national surveys estimate that 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

Chana said several factors contributed to her first eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, when she was in middle school. A perfectionist, Chana said society’s perception of beauty combined with desire to please someone in her life whose love and acceptance she craved warped her reality. To her, thinness equated to beauty, acceptance and success.

She began deteriorating until she weighed closed to 60 pounds. She aimed to trim to a 12-inch waist. She carried weights in her backpack and wore weights around her ankles to shed more calories all the while maintaining her perfect GPA and anchoring the school’s morning announcements.

“My bones were protruding. When I looked in the mirror, I thought I was morbidly obese,” she said. “I cut everything off. I couldn’t cry. I didn’t even know what happy was if you defined it to me. I couldn’t understand those feelings. When I had doctors, psychologist, a nutritionist trying to help me get healthier, I transferred eating disorders. I was feeling more, but I still wanted control, so I picked up another set of bad habits.”

She shifted to bulimia nervosa, a disorder marked by binging and purging to avoid weight gain. In college, she stopped purging but instead transitioned into a binge eating disorder. She would claim control by limiting her food intake for days and then gorge on 10,000 calories in one secret sitting.

As a student at the Nicholson School of Communication, she began to see the stamina journalists needed daily to be successful in the industry.

“I knew I couldn’t keep this pain and suffering all bottled up inside of me and be able to complete the task for just my basic classes, let alone an actual full time job as a reporter,” she said.

So she visited UCF’s Student Health Services and for the first time, truly wanted the help she was asking for. They helped her find Winter Park’s White Picket Fence, a counseling center specialized in eating disorders.

It took baby steps every day, but now after a decade-long journey, she says she is fully recovered. She doesn’t wake up in the morning and go to bed at night thinking about food and weight. When she is hungry, she eats, and when she feels full, she stops.

And if she is ever in a stressful point in her life, she thinks about the past and reminds herself that those methods didn’t work for years, and they certainly won’t solve problems now.

She also credits her family, specifically her mother, for helping her through her recovery.

“Together, we figured it out. My mom would read books about it, and she would help me through the process. It truly was an exhausting journey, and I can only imagine from her standpoint. There were days where doctors said, ‘Kailtyn, you’re not going to survive. You’re going to die.’ My mom would say, ‘You can’t die on me. We’re going to do this together. We’re going to figure it out together. Just hold on.”

Chana (left center) with her Reel Stories. Real People. team

So now Chana wants to help others through the best way she knows how – storytelling.

She achieved her professional goal and became a reporter for Action News Jax in 2015 after a brief stint at a news station in Bangor, Maine. On the side, she started another organization, Reel Stories. Real People., which tells stories that inspire, advocate, and educate the public on topics through digital media not typically showcased in traditional news media.

Through the organization, she also wants to shape curriculum about eating disorders and mental health for free distribution to public schools nationwide. She intends to produce a 30-40 minute film that high school teachers can use, along with a thought-out, written plan featuring common questions, a class activity, assessments and a list of resources.

“I went to a school the other day that had the same text book that I had over a decade ago, and it’s disheartening because there’s only two paragraphs on eating disorders. But if we were able to have that preventative care and talk about it when I was in the class, maybe I didn’t have to go through all this pain and suffering,” she said. “Our goal is to help teachers redirect the conversation on mental health by providing informative preventative care resources. Now, they will be able to instruct their class with a one-day lesson that’s engaging and dynamic, but also resourceful.”

Pride Commons Connection Leads To UCF Love Story

Alumnae Nicole and Cecil Chik met at Pride Commons when it opened in 2013 and married on campus four years later.

By Jenna Marina Lee

ORLANDO, Fla. (Feb. 12, 2018) – The wedding ring popped out of the box, rolled onto the gazebo floor and continued rolling right on into the depths of Lake Baldwin during the middle of Nicole Dumbroff ’15 and Cecil Chik ’09 ’15MA’s wedding ceremony.

Thanks to a scuba diver from theringfinders.com, the ring is back on Nicole’s finger after spending two weeks in the lake, and she laughs now as she recalls this romantic-comedy-esque moment of the couple’s five-year love story.

The Chiks’ wedding day is something they weren’t sure would happen when they met at UCF in 2013. But when Florida legalized same-sex marriage in January 2015 and the U.S. Supreme Court declared it a right nationwide six months later, social norms changed things for the couple in the best way possible.

“The same way that my family members asked my sister when she was going to marry her husband, they were now asking me. And they had never asked before,” Cecil said. “We’re married, so now the next question people are asking is, so when are you going to have kids? So, in a way, this has normalized my relationship in a way I never would have thought possible.”

Cecil immigrated to Miami from Hong Kong with her family in 1989. She grew up on Calle Ocho, learning to speak Spanish before English, and at her parents’ insistence, she was destined for a college education.

A first-generation student, she chose UCF because her cousin attended the university and enjoyed his experience. She strengthened her connection to the university by getting involved with the Campus Activities Board through the Office of Student Involvement.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics education and taught for Osceola and Orange County Public Schools before returning to UCF in 2013 as a graduate assistant within UCF’s LGBTQ+ Services and Multicultural Student Center to pursue a master’s degree in counselor education.

Her decision ended up changing the trajectory of her life both personally and professionally.

How They Met
One of her role’s main responsibilities included managing UCF’s first LGBTQ safe space on campus, Pride Commons. The space opened its doors for a test run during 2013’s summer semester before officially opening in September.

“I loved being a part of that beginning because I was able to set up something that I didn’t have in my undergrad for every single student that came afterwards. You can come in and you can play card games with people, and you don’t have to talk about different identities, but the people surrounding you, you know will understand your experience,” Cecil said.

During one of Cecil’s shifts, an undergraduate statistics student from Coral Springs walked in and struck up a conversation with her.

“I knew she was interested in me, but the thing is, I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to because I was a graduate assistant at the time and she was in undergrad,” Cecil said. “So I kind of skirted around the situation. I didn’t really say anything. She friended me on Facebook and I left it untouched.”

Nicole interjected: “For two weeks! I knew there may have been an ethical dilemma. She’s older than I am. We have a 7-and-a-half-year age difference.”

Cecil quickly cracked: “It’s her favorite thing to bring up,” and laughed.

Nicole continued: “I was used to being rejected because of my age. So I thought, you know what – it’s ok. If it has to remain a crush, it will remain a crush. I was accepting of that. But then she finally did accept my friend request.”

For the record, Cecil pointed out that she asked permission first from her supervisor at the time under the guise of asking advice about the situation for a friend. With no ethical conflict to worry about, the two quickly became attached to each other.

Two Weddings and One Lost Ring
Not long after, they had their first date: lunch at Mills Market and a stop at Lake Baldwin, where they had their first kiss.

Three years later, they proposed to each other. Cecil popped the question on Feb. 29, 2016, by recreating their first date, and Nicole returned the gesture in a surprise proposal on April 1.

They wanted to get married at UCF where their relationship began. They started planning for a November 2017 wedding but also decided to hold an intimate ceremony beforehand on Dec. 28, 2016, at Lake Baldwin in front of their families – the same date as Cecil’s grandparents’ anniversary.

Nicole’s aunt performed the ceremony. Cecil’s sister jumped into the lake to go after the ring. The whole family had a nice meal together afterward.

Nearly a year later, they held a big bash with all of their friends at Live Oak Event Center, just around the corner from Pride Commons where they first met.

“We made it to UCF’s Snap (chat) story. We had some friends text us afterward, ‘Over 300 people watched your first dance!’” Cecil said.

After “I Do”
The two now live in DeLand, where Cecil is the director of diversity and inclusion at Stetson University.

“Opening Pride Commons and having the ability to stand up and fight for something I personally believe in, and also be able to do it on behalf of a community I belong to, is really what kickstarted my passion to do the diversity and inclusion work I do now,” Cecil said.

Nicole received a Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship to obtain her master’s degree at UCF and is guaranteed a job with the Department of Defense in California after she graduates this spring with her degree in statistical computing with a data mining track.

The two will move this summer to the West Coast but they will always have a special place in their hearts for Orlando and UCF.

“UCF always felt like a welcoming place. I never felt like I had to hide my identity. Because Orlando is a pretty gay-friendly city and the sheer size of the school, there’s so much diversity,” Nicole said.

Cecil added: “I am very grateful to UCF for dedicating a space to LGBTQ+ inclusivity because it didn’t just provide a safe space for queer-identified people – I found the love of my life there.”

The couple commemorated their wedding date with a brick on Knights Terrace at UCF FAIRWINDS Alumni Center.

UCF Alumnus’ Drive to Champion Orlando Leads to NFL Pro Bowl

UCF alumnus Steve Hogan, courtesy of Florida Citrus Sports

By Jenna Marina Lee

ORLANDO, Fla. (Jan. 24, 2018) – During last year’s NFL Pro Bowl at Camping World Stadium, CEO of Florida Citrus Sports Steve Hogan ’91 had a unique perspective of the game.

From the sidelines, he watched as New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ children played catch with Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell hovered close enough to extend a handshake and a thank you. In the stands, 60,000 fans displayed their varied allegiances with NFL team jerseys of nearly every color.

Hogan, widely regarded as being the “quarterback” who brought together leaders from the public and private sector to convince the NFL to move the Pro Bowl from long-time location Honolulu to Orlando, forced himself to take a breath and look around to appreciate the final product of the community’s hard work.

“You have to pinch yourself in a moment like that. It was a neat five minutes,” he said with a laugh.

And then it was off to the next task at hand. Whether it is community projects, college football bowl season, World Cup bids or this week’s NFL Pro Bowl (again in Orlando), Hogan’s world has constantly been in motion since he joined the events department at Florida Citrus Sports in 1995.

And yet, Hogan, who has served as Florida Citrus Sports’ CEO since 2006, still wakes up every day excited to head to the same organization that he’s been dedicated to for the last 23 years.

“I just love the fact that Central Florida is constantly a community that has continued to push the boundaries and reinvent itself as it relates to sports,” he said. “As long as I’ve been here, I always feel like there’s been something new to work on. A new challenge every year to be excited about. It’s why I’ve been able to stay here for so long.”

Hogan grew up in Central Florida and spent two years at Polk State College before transferring to UCF.

Hogan said UCF’s ability to provide a student experience in a metropolitan area seemed like the right fit for him.

A journalism major with an interest in advertising and public relations, he had the opportunity to gain real-world experience within the hospitality industry with part-time jobs at places like Church Street Station.

“The class environment was fantastic, the support you get on campus and guidance – all those things were great, but it’s also the well-rounded nature of what the community is, what campus is like, the culture for students and the opportunities,” he said. “To me, it was everything together that some schools can’t provide.”

Since graduating, Hogan has been recognized by the Orlando Business Journal as a CEO of the Year; by Polk State College as a Distinguished Alumnus; and most recently in December, he received the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association’s 2017 Charles Andrews Memorial Hospitality Award in recognition of his achievements and contributions to Central Florida’s hospitality industry, as well as the community at large.

Hogan credits relationships as the key to success in his line of work.

“Relationships are what give you the opportunity to begin conversations for things that potentially won’t be available or occur for 4-5-6-7 years down the road,” he said.

Hogan said they tried landing the Pro Bowl back in 1997 when an opening became available and continued to “beat the drum” until the game was awarded to the city in 2017.

Another part of beating the drum included a more than $200 million commitment to improvements to Camping World Stadium – a project that Hogan worked tirelessly for alongside community leaders for nearly a decade to secure approval for the reconstruction.

A Win For Orlando
While the reconstruction has certainly helped land marquee events like this week’s Pro Bowl, part of the reconstruction opened the door to another passion project for Hogan: LIFT Orlando.

The non-profit was organized in 2013 and consists of business leaders partnering with west-Orlando residents to break the cycle of poverty through neighborhood revitalization. Under Hogan’s leadership, Florida Citrus Sports committed itself to the cause by intending to use the stadium as a positive economic engine. Increased profits from sponsorships and games would be directed toward funding programs that focused on benefiting the neighboring children and families.

“We’re in a position to have this impact. To not do it and have the only story 30-40 years from now be that the stadium was renovated and rebuilt and hosted successful sporting events, that would have been an incomplete story. That’s what drove us to say, maybe there’s a different approach for social innovation,” Hogan said.

Hogan knows it will take decades to create the real change that LIFT Orlando has set out to achieve, but he is already starting to see impact take shape.

Two blocks from the stadium, Lift Orlando’s $40-million mixed-income housing apartment building is set to open for new residents later this month. The project demolished a former crime-ridden, boarded up property that had been foreclosed since 2013.

Plans for a new Boys & Girls Club in the area are also in the works.

The neighborhood has rebranded itself West Lakes, and now, the public address announcer greets fans every game day with a booming: “Welcome to Camping World Stadium and the West Lakes neighborhood!”

“The residents are taking pride in serving ambassador roles on game days and telling their stories. Kids that are living in this neighborhood are making their grades and get to come to every single event here free of charge with their whole family because they’re doing their part in staying in school and staying out of trouble,” Hogan said. “This is just the beginning. Five years ago, it was an idea, and it’s really hard as you start having conversations with each other. But seeing this become reality is the best reward.

“We are – in every respect – interested in Orlando winning.”

Alumna Giving Back In Celebration Of Daughter’s Memory, Perfect Season

Alumna Sarah Dodson ’01 plans on honoring the memory of her daughter, Marlie, with a special volunteer project in Atlanta and Orlando on New Year’s Eve.

By Jenna Marina Lee

ORLANDO, Fla. (Dec. 24, 2017) – On Dec. 31, 2011, Sarah Dodson ’01 knew New Year’s Eve would never hold the same meaning to her again. After five years of treatment, her 8-year-old daughter Marlie, who dreamed of becoming a UCF cheerleader and nurse, died of a brain tumor (Pineoblastoma).

In 2012, Dodson and her family established a new tradition with the hope that they could re-channel their feelings about the day into a positive experience. As a tribute to Marlie’s life, the family has sponsored a Share-A-Meal each year at the Ronald McDonald House at Orlando’s Arnold Palmer Medical Center.

This year, they’re expanding their efforts to Atlanta where the family of Knights fans will be to support the undefeated UCF football team in its Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl appearance on Jan. 1 against Auburn.

“We were moved by memorializing Marlie for this event, but ultimately it was representing UCF in a community that we’ve been invited to be a part of with this bowl game,” Dodson said. “That was a big piece of it for me – how cool is it that we can represent UCF and give back to this community on something that we’re all so passionate about? What an honor it is to represent UCF in addition to Marlie’s memory.”

The idea to extend the Share-A-Meal to Atlanta was planted at the American Athletic Conference Championship Game on Dec. 2.

A longtime supporter of the football team, Dodson was sitting in the stands at Spectrum Stadium before the last play when her sister turned to her and said, “They’re going to win this game. What are you going to do? I guess you’re going to have to have the Share-A-Meal in Atlanta.”

Dodson said she laughed it off as an unrealistic possibility. She was already committed to their annual meal in Orlando, but the idea stuck with her.

She researched the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and learned of its reputation as college football’s most charitable bowl and its commitment to education and the community’s children. As an educator herself with Club Z! In-Home Tutoring Services, it struck a chord.

She also learned the bowl is celebrating its 50th year – it’s golden season. Gold also happens to be the color for childhood cancer awareness. And “forever golden” is how Dodson’s entire family refers to Marlie.

Dodson felt there were too many signs to ignore. Her friends and support system at home told her they would take over the Orlando meal this year and encouraged her to go to Atlanta.

“This has almost been like a movement for Team Marlie. Now we know we can do this anywhere,” she said. “We can have multiple groups travel to any city because we’re so supported. It’s so perfect that it worked out and our first city will be Atlanta, and we’ll be there because of UCF.”

Dodson connected with the Ronald McDonald Family Room at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorder Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta – Scottish Rite. They’ll be serving meals to the patients, families, nurses, doctors and hospital staff.

Although Dodson can only bring three helpers onto the floor with her to serve the meals, her entire regular tailgate crew of 12 will help in the preparation.

“Meals are very important for the families who visit the family room. Most families do not want to leave their child’s bedside even if that means going downstairs to the cafeteria, so having a place where they can eat as a family moments away from their hospital room and worry free of cost, is a special treat,” said April Smith, family support services manager for Atlanta Ronald McDonald House Charities. “Families have expressed how grateful and appreciative they are to have groups and individuals volunteer their time to provide and serve warm prepared meals. I was happy to hear Sarah wanted to continue her volunteer work while visiting in Atlanta.”

They also plan to distribute sparkling apple cider and champagne flutes to help create a festive New Year’s Eve atmosphere in the children’s rooms.

Dodson said experiences like these are always a balance of excitement and compassion. Inevitably there will be some tears, but she is looking forward to the opportunity to honor her daughter’s memory on a weekend she knows her little cheerleader would have been thrilled to be a part of.

“This season was something that we’ve all been waiting for. The thing about Marlie was win or lose, she was a fan. I know her pride for this team would be through the roof,” she said. “If I was able to put to words what Marlie might feel, looking down on us, I think mostly she would be excited that we were living life and embracing another community and another group of children. She taught us to live life and to find happiness and love in everyone you come across. Continuing to be her voice and share that passion, I think she’d be excited we have smiles on our faces and are enjoying the experience.”

Marlie Dodson

UCF Grad’s Life With Knightro

Michael Callahan ’05 ‘09MBA ‘17EdD , center, has served as Knightro’s head coach for more than a decade (photo courtesy of Chris Schubert ’92)

By Jenna Marina Lee

ORLANDO, Fla. (Dec. 14, 2017) – When Michael Callahan ’05 ’09MBA ’17EdD graduates this weekend with his third degree from UCF – a doctorate in higher educational leadership – those in the audience at CFE Arena likely won’t notice any difference between him and the others receiving their diplomas.

And that’s exactly what he has been accustomed to in his double life as Knightro’s head coach and a former mascot.

“You walk out of the tunnel on game day, and people are screaming Knightro. I walk into a building and people ignore me. It’s night and day difference,” Callahan said. “When you get that much attention, I have seen through this program that one individual has the ability to make change if they want to.”

Before his senior year of high school, the Massachusetts native was visiting his grandmother in Leesburg, and she encouraged him to visit “this college that’s in the newspaper.” After touring UCF and learning more about its affordability and academic programs, Callahan knew he had found his school.

His decision led to one of the longest relationships of his life: Knightro.

After seeing the beloved mascot perform at some football games, Callahan thought it looked like a fun job and tried out for the team in the spring. He said he made the cut not because he had the best skillset, but because the coach believed in his dedication.

“He saw something in me from a work ethic standpoint that he just couldn’t turn me away,” Callahan said. “That changed my life for the future.”

Michael Callahan as Knightro in his undergraduate days

Now he’s the one in charge of selecting the talent and team that brings Knightro to life.

He has had to juggle his career as the director of information systems with the Burnett Honors College; his personal life as a husband and father of three (including 3-year-old twins!); and years of classes and coursework in his pursuit of master’s and doctoral degrees.

But he’s been showing up every day, without fail, for the last 12 years – ever since UCF’s spirit program head coach Linda Gooch ’85 asked him to come say a few inspirational words to the team and offer some advice. When he showed up to practice, she introduced him to the group as Knightro’s new head coach.

“That’s when it hit me, ‘Huh, I’ve taken on a coaching responsibility,’” he said.

Gooch laughed playfully: “I have my ways.”

In her defense, she knew he was the man for the job. Gooch said one of the most challenging aspects of serving as Knightro’s head coach is finding the right team of student performers.

“The interesting thing about selecting a mascot is if you were in a room with them, you might pick out the guy who is the cut up or who seems really funny. But a lot of these kids are reserved and quiet in person. And then you put that head on them, and they transform. He’s able to see those qualities that we need,” she said. “His true gift is empowering the people who are part of the program to be able to work together as a team. It is truly a labor of love for him, no question about it.”

Their weekly routine consists of two practices a week. They work on skits for game day and practice flag waving, his walk and his signature. They discuss scheduling for the most popular guy on campus. And over the years, they’ve had to implement social media strategies or learn the latest dance crazes.

On game days, in addition to critiquing the student’s performances, Callahan is in charge of maintaining Knightro’s minute-by-minute schedule from tailgate appearances to his on-field antics.

“During tryouts, the first thing I preface to everyone, when you think about it logically with other sports it makes sense: the football team plays for three hours on Saturday, but how much time do they spend in the weight room and practice and video and everything else?” he said. “This is no different than any other sport. You have meetings. You have to do costume repair and practice and planning. You will spend more time outside of costume to get ready for that one-hour event or game day.”

While it is exciting to be part of the game day atmosphere and athletics’ daily life, Callahan said his favorite aspect of the job has always been the community involvement.

Gooch recalled that when he was a student, Callahan made a personal goal to log 100 events in the community in one year in addition to his responsibilities and duties at athletic events.

“When you think about it, you’re basically doing an event every three days,” she said. “He was an awesome guy. So dedicated and really helped us to develop the program as a mascot himself.”

His longstanding history of love and commitment to Knightro has even resulted in a children’s book called “Hello, Knightro!” which was published in 2013. Callahan credits his wife, fellow alumna Lauren, for making the book a reality.

Michael and his wife, Lauren, wrote the children’s book “Hello, Knightro!”

“Everybody who is a UCF fan that sees it thinks it’s the coolest thing out there. It’s a good feeling to know you’re touching people in the community and making a positive change. Hopefully in a few years the children who grew up reading the book will want to come here,” he said.

Perhaps some future Knightros will be among those children. For Callahan, that’s what it all comes back to – the students.

“Working with all the students is a great reward, and I’m only able to do it because of what UCF has done for me,” Callahan said. “It’s my way of saying thank you.”

Veteran’s Day Salute: Joseph Rogan ’11

Burnett Honors College alumnus Joe Rogan ’11 (right) served eight years in the Military Police Corps of the U.S. Army Reserve.

By Jenna Marina Lee

ORLANDO, Fla. (Nov. 9, 2017) – Jacksonville-based lawyer and UCF alumnus Joseph Rogan ’11 approaches everyday with the same mentality: Put the mission first. Never accept defeat.

Whether those tenets apply to his career or his relationships, the U.S. Army’s Warrior Ethos are something The Burnett Honors College graduate has carried with him since he enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve at the age of 17.

“It really was just a calling,” said Rogan, who served eight years in the Military Police Corps.

Rogan grew up in South Florida and chose to join the Army Reserve before his senior year of high school.

His parents were supportive but hesitant. In fact, Rogan’s paperwork sat on the table for two weeks without until one day he came home to find the missing component completed: his mother’s signature.

“I found out years later that my brother had persuaded her to sign it,” he said.

In the summer between his junior and senior years of high school, he traveled to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for basic training. He called it a maturing experience and unlike anything he had ever endured.

“I think you learn a lot about values and reasons to trust and work with people,” he said.

He arrived on campus in 2008 after finishing military police school as a first-generation college student and ended up double majoring in political science and psychology. He joined ROTC for that first year and, of course, he was still committed to the Army Reserve, training with his unit regularly.

After his first year at UCF, his unit got activated and was deployed to Iraq.

For 10 months, before he had reached the age of 21, Rogan was responsible for mentoring, advising and training the Iraqi police, some of whom had been officers for decades.

Rogan said the experience helped him find his calling as a lawyer.

“When we were there, the Iraqis were still operating under Saddam Hussein’s penal code. But it was in a democracy. You can imagine there are some really big problems with that,” he said. “Since then, they’ve rewritten the penal code, but at the time, my job was to explain how to treat people in what we view as norms in a democratic society.”

Rogan returned to the United States, and about a week later, he was back in classes at UCF. The transition was understandably a major adjustment.

“It was a difficult time going from holding a gun one day to sitting in class with a pencil the next,” he said.

In addition, he withstood several injuries while overseas, including a traumatic brain injury from a vehicle explosion. Other injuries required surgeries upon his return.

But as he adjusted to studying full-time again, he found ways to apply what he had learned from the military to his everyday life.

His work ethic yielded exemplary grades in his classes. His professors, especially in courses like Middle Eastern politics, saw value in his real-life experiences for class discussions.

Rogan credits Director of Honors Advising Rex Roberts ’00 ’03MA for helping him integrate back into a routine schedule and UCF’s community.

Rogan went on to attend Georgetown Law and spent time working in Washington D.C., where he got involved with UCF Alumni’s chapter and eventually rekindled a friendship that later blossomed into a marriage with alumna Ashley Noland ’10.

“There can be a perception with a university like UCF that because we’re large, it’s not a community. That it’s like a factory. That was never my experience,” he said. “It was very much the opposite.”

His double-life in college and the Army Reserve helped lead him to his career as an associate for Smith Hulsey & Busey focusing in business litigation. His drive hasn’t gone unnoticed as he was selected as one of UCF Alumni’s 30 Under 30 this year.

At its center, that drive is all about putting the mission first and never accepting defeat. So as the United States prepares to commemorate its 63rd annual Veterans Day on Nov. 11, Rogan knows first-hand and respects the depth of duty and commitment of those who serve.

“Everybody who serves, no matter their branch or if they are active or reserve or whether they’ve ever been deployed, everybody who serves has sort of written a blank check to the country,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that they agree with any particular war or that they even want to go, but all those people, by signing on the dotted line, have agreed that they will. And they know that there’s a possibility you could be injured or killed. I have the upmost gratitude for everybody who has signed that line at all stages and all branches.”