Five Things Alumni Need to Know this Week – May 20, 2019

1. It was always one of two things for Lainie Pekich ’13, Paul Jaszczenski ’03 and Kaia. They were either at a dog-friendly human establishment, where Lainie and Paul could eat and drink and enjoy each other’s company, while Kaia was bored under the table. Or. They were at a human-friendly dog park, where Kaia was thriving in her environment, running around and getting her energy out, while Lainie and Paul were trying to find a tree to provide some shade and thinking how delicious a cold beer would be about now. As longtime business owners and entrepreneurs, Lainie and Paul knew there had to be a better way and if there wasn’t, they’d create one. That’s where Orlando’s first dog-park bar, Boozehounds, begins.

Read their story here.

2. Florida may have Florida Man and lovebug season, but we also have the #1 spot in the country for higher education, according to U.S. News & World Report. As one of the five Florida state universities included on the magazine’s national list of top 100 public universities, UCF certainly contributed to this win for the state! Elizabeth A. Dooley, UCF’s provost and vice president for Academic Affairs told UCF Today, “UCF is proud to be a major contributor to the access, affordability, student success, and excellence that distinguishes Florida as the top state in the country for higher education. Together, the universities and state colleges in Florida are showing the nation how the power of higher education can lift lives and energize the future.”

3. You may or may not have liked who ended up on the Iron Throne last night, but one thing is for sure: Game of Thrones fans had quite the journey following along. Why is it that we get so wrapped up in the lives of fictional characters? Two-time alumnus and UCF Professor Peter Telep ’95 ’98 has the answers.

4. Five recent alums have received prestigious Fulbright awards, allowing them to pursue research and educational opportunities or teach English abroad. This year’s recipients will travel to South Korea, Belgium, Brazil and Montenegro. There’s a brief look at each of this year’s five Fulbright fellows over on UCF Today.

5. With hurricane season just up on the horizon, a team of UCF researchers will brief emergency responders from across the state about their work looking at the impact of recent hurricanes. At the annual Governor’s Hurricane Conference, hundreds of emergency management personnel, first responders and planners from across Florida gather together. Learn more about the conference and those representing UCF at it.

Five Things Alumni Need to Know this Week – May 13, 2019

1. There are 108 days left until the next season of UCF football. The hype is real and the momentum is building and we have less than 1,000 season tickets remaining. Get your head in the game now and ensure you don’t miss a single phenomenal moment in Spectrum Stadium this year.

2. Our women’s golf team is heading to the NCAA National Championships on Wednesday morning. The Knights crushed it at the NCAA Elum Regional in Washington on May 8, racking up a combined score of 874. “The grit our team showed on that back 9 today was unbelievable. We kept telling them all week to believe, just believe,” UCF head coach Emily Marron says. 

3. “Many kids say they want to work with animals when they grow up. But only a small number of them are willing to scrub poop out of animal enclosures to reach that dream. Katelyn O’Rourke ’14 was among those willing to do anything. Now the psychology alumna’s hard work is paying off with a career that includes hosting an animal-actor show at Universal Orlando and visiting commercial and movie sets. ‘I pushed myself to get where I am,’ O’Rourke says. ‘It’s a hard business to get into, but you can do it if you’re willing to work hard.’” Read more here.

4. From April 29-May 3, four UCF students participated in the NPR News’ national training program, NextGen Radio. The program is a week-long “pop-up” digital journalism training experience and the theme of the week’s stories was immigration.

“Rick Brunson ’84, associate instructor in the Nicholson School, represented the university in the partnership and is mentoring one of the students. ‘We are fanning out around Central Florida to locate, capture and tell the stories of immigrants who have arrived here and are making a new life,’ he says. ‘The training is highly structured with tutorials in audio reporting, web production, social media production, photography, video and more. Our stories will be richly layered, textured and multimedia in nature.’” Read more here.

5. Jason Smith is one of the 8,300 people who joined the UCF Alumni family last weekend and he already has big plans to put his degree to work. This week he starts his work as a UCF-trained psychiatrist caring for patients at Osceola Regional Medical Center and at the Orlando VA. Read about his unconventional path to getting his M.D. degree right here.

Five Things Alumni Need to Know this Week – May 6, 2019

1. Over the weekend, more than 8,300 students graduated from UCF. These new members of the alumni family showed off their creativity, sense of humor and momentum toward future aspirations with their grad caps. Check out some of the best here!

Also, hey new grads. Welcome to the alumni side of UCF! Don’t forget to update your UCF app with your new title and to get acclimated with all things alumni.

2. Gladys Jose ’12 knows the exact length it is from Will Smith’s name to her own on the cover of the new children’s book, Fresh Princess. She also knows that her name being on the cover of anything involving Will Smith is a pretty phenomenal thing.

Read A Story All About How: UCF Alumna Illustrates Book Inspired by The Fresh Prince.

3. The ChargeOn Tour begins this week! Check dates and locations to see when are where you can meet Danny White, some of our incredible coaches and fellow Knights. Spend the night getting hyped on UCF athletics, ‘cause there’s a lot to be hyped on.

4. The successful flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket last week from west Texas carried multiple research payloads, including one from the UCF. It marks the fourth flight into space for the university in the past year.

One special guest flew aboard the flight today – a small plush Citronaut, affectionately referred to as Dave. The Citronaut, which is a blend of an orange and an astronaut, is UCF’s retro, unofficial first mascot from when UCF was known as Florida Technological University. He’s become a beloved throwback figure among the Knight Nation… Read more here.

5. For now we can only hope that some day this adorable story about an alumna rediscovering her preschool sweetheart after 12 years and falling in love with him will become a romantic comedy starring the next Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling. Until then, read all about here on People.


A Story All About How: UCF Alumna Illustrates Book Inspired by The Fresh Prince

Gladys Jose ’12 knows the exact length it is from Will Smith’s name to her own on the cover of the new children’s book, Fresh Princess. She also knows that her name being on the cover of anything involving Will Smith is a pretty phenomenal thing.

“Whenever I’m asked how this Fresh Princess thing happened, it’s just, the stars aligned in such a way,” Gladys says. “It’s an anomaly. I know this isn’t normal!”

Growing up an only child with a single mom, Gladys learned two things early on in her life: how to be very independent and how to fill her time doing something she loved — drawing.

Though, yes, this story ends with her being the illustrator for a hit book backed by a Man In Black, she didn’t necessarily think of her childhood spent drawing as a career possibility. When she started college (first at Valencia, and then Direct Connect to UCF), she selected psychology as a major. It wasn’t until her then-boyfriend-now-husband suggested a design class as a fun elective option that she started considering it.

“He ended up dropping out of the class the first week and I’m sitting there like ‘OK, well, thanks dude,’” Gladys says. “But that is what kind of started all this. I sat in the classroom and realized that design one class was a lot more fun than anything else I was taking.”

As Gladys started preparing for graduation from UCF in 2012, she was hoping to land a full-time job at a design firm. She had a game plan of 20 different design firms she was going to apply to. A month prior to graduation, at a portfolio critique with local design-industry professionals, Gladys was confident that she’d show her portfolio off and get a job offer. She had a feeling it was her moment.

She had four sit-downs with design firms lined up and decided to throw author/illustrator Ethan Long into her extra spot near the end of the day.

“At that point I only had two illustrations in my portfolio,” Gladys says. “I just went for the feedback. He illustrates picture books and I was going to be a designer. He looks at my portfolio and he’s just kind of like ‘Meh’ at it, until he got to the last illustrations and was like, ‘This! This is what you need to be doing! Why don’t you have more of this in here?’”

Gladys explains that she had never considered freelance, illustration or freelance illustration. Yet when she got home that day she typed “how to be an illustrator” into the Google search-bar and a new game plan was set in motion. She would do freelance graphic design and in her spare time work on developing herself as an illustrator.

In her research, Gladys came across the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The international organization offers, in addition to several other benefits, conferences and portfolio critiques for aspiring illustrators, which Gladys now fit into the category of. At an event in February 2015, Gladys met with Chris Tugeau of The CAT Agency and was told that her portfolio was ready and that it was clear she understood who she was as an artist.

This was as much good news as Gladys needed to confidently reach out to Chris a few days later with a thanks-for-the-feedback-also-will-you-represent-me email. In February of 2015, the answer was not now.

A little over a year later, a new burst of confidence set in and Gladys submitted her portfolio to the daughter of The CAT Agency duo, Christy T. Ewers. In August of 2016, the answer was, still, not now.

“I didn’t draw for like three months after that,” Gladys says. “It was too sad. It felt like a big wall. I kept getting the feedback that my work was amazing, and they loved it, but they weren’t taking new people.”

The following January 2018, Gladys caught news that Christy was taking over the agency, and she decided 2018 was going to be her year. She sent a long email to Christy explaining that she had been working on her portfolio and was sending a manuscript of a book she’d illustrated. Gladys signed the email with one more “I’m still holding on to hope that someday there will be a spot for me.”

In January 2018, the answer was an offer of representation and a contract to sign.

Christy sent out an email with Gladys’ work to editors and art directors she had relationships with, letting them know about the new talent she was representing. That same day an editor from HarperCollins Children’s Books reached out to ask if Christy’s new artist had any samples of little girls with flair.

All Gladys had to work with at the time was the word flair. And so she went to Google again to try narrow down the word to something tangible she could represent through illustration. After she sent in 10 different girls with 10 completely different looks, there was silence for months. Gladys felt that sinking feeling again — maybe the timing just wasn’t right.

In a sculpting class Gladys took early on in her college career, she received an assignment to sculpt the bust of someone she admired and, as fate would have it, she sculpted Will Smith.

Then in June of 2018, word came back that she got the project, she’d have to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and oh also Will Smith is tied to the project and she’d be illustrating characters inspired by The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

“It was like I didn’t have knees anymore, because I just fell to the floor,” Gladys says. “It’s like that Will Smith clip that’s a gif. It’s not that stuff like this doesn’t happen to people like me, but I never thought that something like this could happen to me specifically.”

The story centers around Destiny, a girl with — you guessed it — flair. Her life gets flipped-turned upside down when her family moves to West Philadelphia.

For Gladys, it’s not just the obvious excitement of being hired to do such a big project with such a big celebrity, but that Fresh Princess offers something she had been looking for when she was a child.

“This isn’t just life-changing for me,” Gladys says. “We need more diverse books and books with kids of color that aren’t just telling the story of African American history, but stories that are about just normal kids today. I would look for books with girls who looked like me, but I couldn’t. So being a part of a project that has a little brown girl, and knowing my daughter gets to grow up with this…Will Smith is just kind of the cherry on the cake.”

Five Things Alumni Need to Know this Week – April 29, 2019

 1. Red Lobster, Alex Trebek and UCF — this article about UCF alumnus Imar Dacunha ’97 and his path to Jeopardy! has it all. Read it now and tune in Wednesday to support a fellow Knight, whose UCF roots helped pave the way to landing on the show.

2. “Avengers: Endgame” is the culmination of ten years, 21 films and a lot of smart minds coming together to create a franchise full of scientific possibilities and not-so-possibilities. So, if you have already made it through your list of pre-Endgame MCU movies to watch, take a beat to read The Science Behind ‘Avengers: Endgame.’ Two researchers at UCF’s NanoScience Technology Center provide their expertise on some of the movie’s scientific elements.

3. All you New-York-er Knights, commit Thursday, May 23 to your memory because UCF’s Charge On Tour is heading your way! We want to meet with alumni, fans and friends to celebrate another impressive year for UCF Athletics. Join us to hear from a number of special guests, including Vice President and Director of Athletics Danny White, Head Football Coach Josh Heupel, Head Men’s Basketball Coach Johnny Dawkins, and Head Women’s Basketball Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson. Register here.

4. Looking for a creative way to support UCF and show off your pride in your alma mater everywhere you go? Well, buddies, we got some good news for you. You can KnightYourRide with a UCF license plate for just $25. It’ll look good, it’ll feel good and it’ll be good because you’re helping UCF!

5. Our UCF Alumni Family is going to grow considerably over the next few days as graduation celebrations take place. Of the degrees to be awarded, the 50,000th DirectConnect to UCF degree will be awarded. This groundbreaking partnership program with state colleges and has expanded access to students, especially those who otherwise may not have been able to pursue a university degree through traditional channels.

Five Things Alumni Need to Know this Week – April 22, 2019


1. It’s cap-and-gown week on campus! If you’re not yet in the alumni category, but will be on the other side of your commencement ceremony in the coming weeks, check out details here for our grad cap contest. We’ll be selecting winners in these five categories: Most School Spirit, Most Artistic, Most Inspirational Quote, Best Pop Culture Reference, and Most Likely to Keep Charging On. Don’t get us wrong, it’s a really big deal you’re getting your diploma and have done big things during your years at UCF. But, wouldn’t it be nice to add one more W?

2. This Wednesday, April 24 is Denim Day. On campus, everyone is encouraged to wear jeans in recognition of National Sexual Assault Awareness Month. But even if you don’t currently make your way to 4000 Central Florida Blvd. on Wednesdays, we still encourage you  to participate wherever you do frequent to show your solidarity with survivors everywhere.

3. Our alumni family includes over 288,000 Knights, spanning from June of 1963 to today. That’s a lot of people and a lot of years to fill all kinds of different experiences and impressions of life as a Knight. But one of the things that unites us all is that big moment we got our acceptance letter and our UCF story began. Watch this feel-good video of Taylor receiving her acceptance letter into the Inclusive Education Services at UCF program. And welcome to the family, Taylor!


4. The momentum building around UCF athletics has no end in sight and this weekend our women’s tennis team proved that! With their win over USF for the American Athletic Conference trophy, the team secured an automatic bid to the 2019 NCAA Championship. Head coach Bryan Koniecko says “I’m just so happy for them, especially for our senior (Natalia Serrano), you want her to leave the right way and we did that this year.  USF pushed us back a little bit late in the match, but we’re happy we clinched it. I’m just ready for our next practice and hopefully the culture we set this year continues on.”

5. Athletics isn’t the only thing building momentum around UCF these days. Our downtown campus, slated to be ready in time for the first day of fall classes on August 26, has growing energy and buzz around it. Michael Kilbride, the assistant vice president of the downtown campus, told the Orlando Sentinel, “It’s very exciting for Orlando that we’re going to be able to bring this game-changing program to life this fall.”

Five Things Alumni Need to Know this Week – April 15, 2019

1. On Saturday, the 30 members of the 2019 30 Under 30 class were honored at the Mortgridge International Reading Center on campus. As chair of the Alumni Board, Dan Ward, said during the awards reception, “our young alumni are impressive in so many ways; they are committed to success in every area of their life, they are champions for what they believe and they are passionate about helping others. And they are just  getting started. These accomplished individuals have wasted no time in becoming active members of their communities as volunteers, mentors and generous donors.”

For pictures from the event and details on the 30 winners, head here.

2. UCF Celebrates the Arts came to a close this weekend. The event, which is a 10-day festival showcasing the creativity, innovation and collaboration across the university, returned to Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and featured more than 30 events and exhibits. The culmination of these 30+ events was a stunning display of the talent in and passion for the arts that UCF students, alumni and friends possess. Pictures are available here.

3. The sixth annual UCF Alumni All-Class Nursing Reunion was Saturday night and provided all nursing alumni the chance to gather together, share a meal and tour the facility. If you were in attendance and want to find your picture, or if you weren’t there but just want to see some snapshots of Knight nurses having a good time, we’ve got you covered.

4. It’s almost finals season around campus, which means students are doing all the late-night stints in the library that you likely remember from your days on campus. Karen Hoffman, the director of UCF’s Counseling and Psychological Services, shared some tips for students on how to reduce their stress levels, but we figured stress doesn’t stop on the graduation stage and alumni might just benefit too. Take a break (it’s OK, we know you’re stressed, it’ll be a quick read) to peruse the list and start implementing away.

5. Speaking of students, spring commencement is right around the corner and the UCF Alumni family is about to get a little bigger. For details on the ceremonies, head here. If just thinking about the worries that get all stirred up this time of semester is making your palms a little sweaty, consider becoming a mentor and helping out those who are about to be catapulted into the working world.

Five Things Alumni Need to Know this Week – April 8, 2019

1. When advertising and public relationsalumna Sarah Schreck ’18 talks about theatre, she can somehow, within seconds, bounce from talking about its power to create social change to emphatically saying “I will watch ‘Xanadu’ every month until the day I die.” She’s seen the ways theatre can be simply enjoyed, she’s seen the ways it can grow people and this past weekend at UCF Celebrates the Arts, she got to see her own play, First Miss, come to life.

Read the story behind the story of First Miss here.

2. You may have missed First Miss (Sorry, both for that truth and for that unfortunate string of words), but it’s not too late to be a part of UCF Celebrates the Arts! There are events happening throughout this week and into this weekend. So check the schedule and make a plan to be there.

3. It has been 97 days since the last UCF football game and we know how tough that can be on some of you. Get that sigh of relief ready, because the kickoff for the annual spring game is set for April 13 at 2:30 p.m. inside Spectrum Stadium. Get back in the football spirit and join us this weekend! All the details you need on parking, tailgating, what food trucks will be there (yep, food trucks will be there), tickets and more are right here.

4. UCF Restores, the on-campus PTSD clinic, is now partnering with a firefighters group to boost mental health support. UCF Restores founder and director, Dr. Deborah Beidel, says “The term we hear all the time is ‘Suck it up, buttercup” and “Suck it up, get on  the truck’. But among younger people, there’s this awareness that [mental health needs] are real. And we need to do something about it.” So, they are.

5. UCF alumnus Luke Hawksworth ’13isn’t sure if the folks smiling at him in the Orlando international Airport were just exemplifying southern hospitality or if they recognized his face as one of the leads of Netflix’s popular reality show, Dating Around. The show, which premiered Valentine’s Day of this year, stands out from other dating shows in its commitment to put the gimmicks aside in favor of a simple per-episode formula: one single New Yorker, five blind first-dates.

Read the reality behind the reality-dating-show here.

Dating Around: Alumnus Shares Experience of Starring on Reality Show

UCF alumnus Luke Hawksworth ’13 isn’t sure if the folks smiling at him in the Orlando international Airport were just exemplifying southern hospitality or if they recognized his face as one of the leads of Netflix’s popular reality show, “Dating Around.” The show, which premiered Valentine’s Day of this year, stands out from other dating shows in its commitment to put the gimmicks aside in favor of a simple per-episode formula: one single New Yorker, five blind first-dates.

Hawksworth, who grew up in a town so small that you could hold your breath driving through downtown, was the lead in the first episode of the series.

We sat down with Luke a couple weeks after the show premiered to hear about his UCF story, his path to getting on the series and the reality behind the reality show.

Before we get into talking about the show, can you just tell me a little about yourself?
Sure! I’m 28 years old and graduated from UCF in 2013. I’m from a small town in North Carolina called Hillsborough, and now live in New York City.

Did you dream of big city life as a kid or were you perfectly content being in a small town?
Being in a small town made me anxious. I didn’t know what to do with myself. When I go back and visit at night, it’s super quiet. You can hear crickets and I’m like, I need to get outa here. I need a siren or a cab honking or something going on. I always wanted to be in the city because I felt like that was where my energy matched.

But first a stop in Orlando for UCF.
Yes. In high school I dreamed of being a pilot and eventually an astronaut. So, since it was close to Kennedy Space Center and had an amazing engineering school, I started looking at UCF. I initially came here to study aero-space engineering and my plan was to be a pilot and eventually go to space. But during my freshman year, I joined the ATO fraternity and was one of the first members of the Young Investors Club. These influences changed my interests and I started to become passionate about business and the financial markets. So, I eventually switched my major to finance.

What came after graduation?
I got a full-time job in financial operations during my senior year, so I kept at it for another year or so after graduation. Eventually I became unhappy with what I was doing and started to think about how I had always wanted to move to New York City. I had done different sorts of acting growing up, mostly theater and commercial work, so I took a leap of faith, quit my job, moved to the city with three bags and called myself an actor. To support myself, I started working in a restaurant, but eventually transitioned to become a real estate broker, because of the flexible schedule. That led to a more professional career and is still what I do for work today. I was still taking voice lessons and trying to work on developing my craft in acting, but I had really fallen in love with real estate right away; it encompasses every part of business that I enjoy.

Were you going to auditions at all?
I didn’t go on many auditions because I was still working on learning. I did really dive hard into real estate and I started to spend more and more time working. In the back of my mind I did still have a desire to be on camera and do some sort of acting or entertainment.  Being on “Dating Around” was very random. I was doing some soul searching after a relationship ended last year, so I went on a solo trip to Europe. During that trip I started thinking more about how I still have such a desire to be an actor, and it was all I could think about on that trip. God must have heard me because the second day back in the US a friend of mine reached out about this spot on “Dating Around.” They needed to find a lead for one of the episodes quickly, so I did a few interviews and before I knew it I was filming the show.

What do you think it is about you that makes a friend of yours see an ad for a dating show and think of you?
I think it was the combination of her knowing that I was interested in acting and that I’m just such a ladies’ man. Kidding! The ad for the show said, “We are looking for a handsome man in his twenties to go on dates with five different women. You’ll be payed this amount and everything is taken care of —dinner, wardrobe, etcetera.” I was like, wait you want to pay me to go on dates? Sign me up! But I didn’t take it seriously at first until my friend Briana Cohen, who is also a UCF graduate, said that she thought I’d be good for the part and the other casting agent thought so too. So I did a few Skype interviews within a few days and before I knew it they told me the network loved me and wanted to me to meet with the producers the next day, and then said, “By the way, it’s a Netflix Original.” At that point I was like “Oh wow, I’m actually going to have to do this”.  So I met with the producers the next day and everything went well and they gave me the green light and we filmed two weeks later.

I’ve watched your episode, so I know a version of what you experienced filming, but what was it actually like?
It was pretty structured, which I think helped me feel more comfortable. At the beginning of each date we would get drinks at the bar and get to know each other while asking most of the same questions back-and-forth. And these were truly blind dates. I didn’t get to meet any of the girls beforehand or talk in between scenes and each date was filmed on a different night. I never forgot about the cameras. I always wanted to keep in mind that I was being filmed so to not do anything too ridiculous. But I think after the first night, I kind of got most of my nerves out and it was really just trying to have as real and genuine of dates as possible.

So the scene where you met each of them was for real?
Yeah. They didn’t let us meet before. It was truly blind. Every conversation we had was filmed, like when we were switching scenes from the bar to the table, we didn’t speak. They separated us so that we could keep the conversation as real as possible.

Does that mean you weren’t able to kind of address the reality of the situation or say to each other things like ‘whoa, this is kind of weird’?
We were but they just cut those parts out. Also we filmed for almost 12 hours each night. We started at six or seven and would film ‘til five or six in the morning. So they were really long nights and very exhausting, especially after the first couple nights.

You’ve been on five twelve-hour dates?
Yeah. And all in one week. So I didn’t know what they were going to use, which is why at all times I wanted to try to be interesting, but that was such a challenge. It’s really tiring, especially if you don’t have chemistry with one of the dates and you’re trying to keep conversation going.

Were there any you felt you didn’t have chemistry with?
Ashley is a very nice girl, but I think right away we both recognized we had nothing in common. But what they didn’t show is that most of the time we were talking about stories from dating and our friends and if we had people that we could match each other up with. But that date was important to show because not everyone is meant for each other. Sometimes you’re just not that into somebody.

You picked Victoria for the second date. Do you still keep in touch with her?
We went out a couple more times after the show, but it never led to anything. It felt like an experience and once the show was over the spark was gone. But picking someone wasn’t really the point of the show. It was so people could see what it’s like to date in New York City and the different people that you come across. It’s to show how a lot of times you have very awkward and cringey moments and, well, I think my episode did a great job of showing that.

Like Tiffany and the smacking-lips thing?
That’s the real stuff! That really happens. Every date you go on is not a good date, at least in my experience.

Has it been weird for you, knowing so many people can watch you experience something as personal as first dates and first kisses?
Before the show came out, I knew they were going to have those two scenes in there [kissing scenes with Tiffany and Betty]. My producer told me, ‘Make sure that you call your mom, tell her you love her and remind her it’s just a show.’ It is interesting that it’s out there for everyone to see, but I think it’s made me more comfortable with being vulnerable.

Do you have any parting dating advice?
You hear it all the time, but be your genuine self. It’s always important to be authentic, but especially when you’re dating. If you try to be someone that you’re not just to please someone else, you’ll end up wasting a lot of time. It’s really about first finding out who you are and being confident in that yourself, then finding a person in that same place that you can be genuine with.

Alumna’s “First Miss” Takes Center Stage at UCF Celebrates the Arts

Photo by Michael Tyler Ham (HAM Photography)

When alumna Sarah Schreck ’18 talks about theatre, she can somehow, within seconds, bounce from talking about its power to create social change to emphatically saying “I will watch ‘Xanadu’ every month until the day I die.” She’s seen the ways theatre can be simply enjoyed, she’s seen the ways it can grow people, and this weekend at UCF Celebrates the Arts, she’ll get to see her own play, “First Miss”, come to life.

Sarah, who is currently attending Carnegie Mellon University for her graduate degree in arts management, was born and raised in Orlando. When she was 10 her family relocated to Jacksonville, but when it was time to pick the location of her undergraduate career, she had a feeling she should return to the place where she felt most at home. That was Orlando, and it became UCF.

“I don’t even think it’s nostalgia goggles,” Sarah says. “UCF is where I became who I am. I honestly did not expect to have such a formidable college experience, but the best times of my life were the relationships that I formed in the performing arts center — auditions with friends where we’d leave laughing and those emotional days where we’d be moved to tears because of one another’s dedication and hard work. That place feels like home.”

One of the most impactful experiences Sarah had during her time at UCF was a class that ultimately led to her involvement in this year’s Celebrate the Arts. She describes the class, theatre for social change, as providing her with more confidence, courage and artistic ability to communicate.

In the class, which is taught by Sybil St. Claire, students learn new techniques of storytelling and how these nontraditional forms of theatre can be influential for audience members and performers alike. Of the many techniques, playback theatre is the one Sarah most took to and is what sparked an idea that became “First Miss”. In this form of theatre, there is a group of performers, an emcee and an audience. Led by the emcee, the audience shares feelings and stories from their own lives while the performers play them back to them.

“The stories can be anything,” Sarah says. “From a lighthearted story about a day at Disney gone awry to discovering one’s faith and addressing it with your parents while they’re on their deathbed. Either way, at the core of it all is that there is medicine in our stories. Seeing things from your life played back to you, it’s kind of like drama therapy, which I am a big advocate for.”

One day in class Sarah wanted to share one of her favorite stories to tell as a playback exercise, the story of her junior prom. Like most humans who went to prom, Sarah’s prom story is more likely to elicit a quick cringe and an “oof, that’s rough” than it is a John-Williams-scored-movie-moment. It’s the story of two teenagers, not sure if they like each other, little bit of miscommunication, touch of butterflies, and a slow song on the dancefloor.

“We leaned in and — I don’t know — I guess we closed our eyes too soon because we did not make it to each other’s lips,” Sarah says. “It wasn’t his first kiss, but it would’ve been mine. Except it wasn’t my first kiss, it was my first miss.”

When Sarah got involved with Project Spotlight, a student-run organization that gives UCF students a chance to take part in productions and develop new works, she knew she needed a good story she could turn into a one-act. She remembered that not only was her junior-prom story relatable for her, but fellow classmates were able to identify with much of the underlying themes.

Nic Stelter and Zoe Blackledge performing in the original production of “First Miss”

As she started developing the story into an actual written play, she noticed it started changing and taking on new shape. Through her writing, the story deepened and started to take on more serious issues about adolescence. In the fall of 2017, “First Miss” had its first production and was so much of a hit that the team of folks who put together UCF Celebrates the Arts thought of it as a potential event in the 2019 lineup. Sarah was sitting on her couch in Pittsburgh one day when the previous artistic director for Project Spotlight, Liz Calvert, called to ask her if she’d be interested in being a part of UCF Celebrates the Arts. One caveat, she’d need to expand the script from one-act to full-length play.

“My first thought was ‘I only lived so much, I don’t know what else to put in!’ Sarah says. “But, that wasn’t true, there were already fictionalized elements, even if it started as a personal story. So if I was going to get to add another act, I wanted to really dive into more issues in a way that gives artists — especially student artists — permission to embrace not only the quirky humor in a piece, but to also tackle difficult subjects in decidedly unusual ways.”

During her next round of writing “First Miss”, Sarah took seriously her chance to get input from different people with different backgrounds and walks of life. She asked people for their stories of adolescence, miscommunication, gender and relationships. She sought out her opportunity to tell a story that would, using elements of other’s real stories, address a wider audience.

“I think a lot of theatre deserves to be a living, breathing document,” Sarah says. “I think that’s how it may retain a kind of community-based magic. Theatre from any era can be healing to watch, you can recognize lessons and recognize characters. But to recognize yourself is all the more valuable. That’s something I hope that all of my work can do. I would hate to have something so boxed in that it only serves one group of people.”

For Sarah, being a playwright is a chance to figuratively be several different people. It’s evident in her work that she appreciates and places great value in being able to embrace disagreement and accept a level of pluralism that acknowledges nuanced and ever-evolving thought and feelings. With playwriting, she can explore her own internal conflicts by giving voice to multiple sides of arguments or stories.

She also, as someone who grew up letting her imagination run rampant, enjoys the chance to see her imaginary friends — more appropriately called characters in the theatre world — become real.

“I just hope that I gave the actors and the crew enough to have fun with,” Schreck says. “Because every play belongs to its cast, crew and audience. It doesn’t even belong to me anymore. None of it does. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Purchase your tickets for Saturday’s performance of “First Miss” and learn more about UCF Celebrates the Arts.