Paying It Forward

The UCF Community Volunteers Chapter cleaned gravestones at Greenwood Cemetery in Orlando during the university's annual Knights Give Back service day.
The UCF Community Volunteers Chapter cleaned headstones, grave markers and memorials at Greenwood Cemetery in Orlando during the university’s annual Knights Give Back service day.
Community Service | Knights Give Back 2014

This year’s Knights Give Back on Oct. 11 marked the eighth anniversary of UCF students, alumni, faculty and staff, coming together to make a lasting impact on the Central Florida community through various service projects.

The New York UCF Alumni Chapter started early, manning a water station for the Susan G. Komen Race for a Cure in Central Park on Oct. 7.

On Oct. 11, many of UCF Alumni’s local and regional chapters and clubs participated in the official day of service with KGB events across the nation:

  • The Chicago UCF Alumni Chapter helped to plant trees, and spread seeds and mulch at the Montrose Beach Bird Sanctuary. | VIEW PHOTOS
  • More than 70 UCF College of Sciences Alumni Chapter alumni and student volunteers assisted the UCF Biology Department with its efforts to restore degraded shorelines and oyster reefs by building oyster mats and replanting mangroves for future deployment at the Indian River Lagoon. | VIEW PHOTOS & FULL STORY
  • UCF Community Volunteers Alumni Chapter members, along with UCF student volunteers, wore their get-dirty clothes to help clean headstones, grave markers and memorials at Greenwood Cemetery.
  • The Palm Beach County UCF Alumni Chapter partnered with Paint Your Heart Out and the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County to paint the exterior of an elderly couple in need in West Palm Beach. | VIEW PHOTOS
  • Philadelphia UCF Alumni Club volunteers packed food for local families in need at the Philabundance Hunger Relief Center.
  • The Tampa Bay UCF Alumni Chapter partnered with The Salvation Army of Hillsborough, Chase Bank, Tampa Bay Harvest and Wigwam Organics, as well as other community partners, to support local food banks in the Tampa Bay area.
  • Volusia/Flagler County UCF Alumni Club members donned their sneakers and sunscreen to help clean up Turie T. Small Elementary School and its surrounding area.

In addition, Washington D.C. UCF Alumni Chapter volunteers walked dogs around to perspective families through Lucy Dog Rescue on Oct. 12; the Charlotte UCF Alumni Club will paint a house for Habitat for Humanity on Oct. 18; and, on Oct. 25, Baltimore UCF Alumni Club members will clean up the wetlands/harbor and help with various landscaping/gardening projects on the campus of Living Classrooms, while the Dallas/Ft. Worth UCF Alumni Club will cheer on and provide water for runners in the CF Climb, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s race for a cure.

Check out some more of the photos from this year’s Knights Give Back service projects.

Thank you to all of those Knights who give their time to help others!

Since 2007, UCF volunteers have served more than 22,000 hours at Knights Give Back, saving Orlando more than $440,000! Go Knights!

Monkey Business

Hospitality alumna gracefully transitions into the tech world


Laurell Shaffer, ’06 | Enterprise Customer Success Manager, Survey Monkey

By Angie Lewis, ’03

As a little girl, Laurell Shaffer, ’06, dreamed of being a Rockette. She grew up taking dance classes and performing her craft in various recitals. However, her career path twirled her in a much different direction. So, instead of doing high kicks at Radio City, she’s taken to the stage of high tech.

As an enterprise customer success manager for the world’s most popular online survey software, Survey Monkey, Shaffer spends her days making sure the company’s largest customer organizations are set up on the system, and, ultimately, successful.

Shaffer earned her bachelor’s degree in hospitality management and began her career with a position at the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville, Tenn. A few years later, she received an opportunity with Hyatt in San Francisco, and made the cross-country move.

While living in the City by the Bay, Shaffer became fascinated by the start-up world and technology, and found a company called Eventbrite, which combined what she knew about events from working in hotels with technology, and she made the switch.

When deciding to move to Portland, Ore., with her now fiancé about four years later, she was able to easily transition to Survey Monkey since Eventbrite has a partnership with the company.

“I find it really exciting,” she explains. “One of the reasons I got away from hotels and moved into technology was because I found that the hotel industry gets to be really stagnant. I refer to it as the ‘good old boys club.’ And, this is absolutely the opposite. When you’re in a young, small company, you have access to leadership, you have access to tools, you’re growing much faster, and everything is quicker. A lot of times, processes aren’t defined and you’re defining them on your own, which I really enjoy. There’s not a lot of red tape. You can make what you want out of it.”

Survey Monkey serves customers of every field, including higher education, corporations, government agencies, magazines and professional sports teams, among others.

It also has an incentive program, called Contribute, where people can register to take surveys, and, for each survey that’s taken, the company donates 50 cents to a charity of the survey respondent’s choosing. So, Shaffer finds herself not only helping her customers set up their surveys, but also taking many surveys in her own personal time.

“Also, when I take surveys, I’m more inclined to find out if they’re using Survey Monkey and, if they’re not, finding out who the competitor is, why they’re different than us and why that organization would be using them,” she says.

Although her career path didn’t lead her to a New York City stage, she feels like she made the leap into a job that’s just the right fit.

“I love to interact with people,” she says. “I think that’s the link from hospitality. I like the relationship-building aspect of the role. And, it’s different every day. This is the most removed I can probably be from hospitality, but it’s still a fun job!”

A Barrel of Q&A

Q. Favorite UCF memory?
A. My first Spirit Splash [in fall 2002], because it’s so unique and wildly fun.

Q. Favorite UCF class?
A. I had an event class that I really liked at the Rosen campus. There was a lot of hands-on stuff. [My professor] helped run the halftime shows and performances at the football games, so for one of our activities, we were able to go down to the field and participate, with headsets on and helping to coordinate things. I also participated in the Culture and Cuisine class (my junior year) that takes students to Paris in the spring, which was amazing. We met with chefs, and we tasted wine, and saw all these amazing sights. It was my first time in Europe.

Q. Were you involved in any extracurricular activities at UCF?
A. I [was in a] sorority for the first two years. I [also] was part of the Hospitality Association once I [went] down that path. I did a bunch of events, and a New York trip for certain members of the association to go to the restaurant show at the Javitz Center in New York.

Q. What advice would you give to current UCF hospitality students?
A. Take advantage of all the programs, because there are some really neat ones, and the classes are so unique. I’ll talk about classes that I took in college, and I don’t think other schools have anything like them. It is a really special program for hospitality. I don’t think there are many out there that compete with it.

Q. Last thing you Googled?
A. Do I need an adapter for electronics in Thailand?

Q. What TV show are you embarrassed to admit watching?
A. “So You Think You Can Dance.” It’s not so much the show, but the level of obsession I have with it that gets embarrassing.

Q. What do you do for fun?
A. Volunteer, hike, cook, taste all of Portland’s amazing food

Q. If you could eat only one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
A. Froyo

A Legacy of Higher Education


Alumni Legacy Program | Admissions Workshop

The UCF Alumni Association, in partnership with the UCF Office of Undergraduate Admissions, hosted its annual Legacy Admissions Workshop on Oct. 7.

This free information session gives UCF alumni an inside look at ways to help their children prepare for one of the most important decisions of their lives — applying for college! It’s geared toward alumni parents of any level students (although, it’s most useful for alumni with children in sixth through 12th grades), and emphasizes the special planning necessary to maximize opportunities in a highly competitive admissions market.

Elizabeth Costello, director of UCF’s undergraduate admissions, served as this year’s guest speaker, discussing topics that included setting an admissions timetable, the application process, and essays and extracurricular activities.

The evening also included a Q&A session, and was simulcast online. Parents are encouraged to come back each year as their children advance through school.

Have a school-aged child and want to be invited to next year’s workshop? Or, would you like more information about this special program? Email [email protected].

UCF Alumni Takes Austin by Knight

Alumnus Chris Thomas, '93, '96 (back row, second from left), hosted the Austin UCF Alumni Club for a special evening overlooking the Texas State Capitol.
Alumnus Chris Thomas, ’93, ’96 (back row, second from left), hosted the Austin UCF Alumni Club for a Networking Knight with distinguished guest speakers. This special event took place overlooking the Texas State Capitol.

By Vanessa Bershad, ’05
Assistant Director
Alumni Relations, Outreach and Engagement

Networking Knight | Austin UCF Alumni Club

With the help of the UCF Alumni Association and the local Austin UCF Alumni Club, Chris Thomas, ’93, ’96, hosted a “Premier Knight in Austin” on Sept. 30, featuring distinguished guests, Tom Messina, ’84, executive director/associate VP of the UCF Alumni Association; Michael Johnson, Ph.D., dean of the UCF College of Sciences; and Paul Jarley, Ph.D., dean of the UCF College of Business Administration.

During this special evening, Messina shared the latest and greatest happenings at the alumni association, Dean Johnson highlighted prestigious College of Sciences faculty member, Kate Mansfield, Ph.D., and her groundbreaking research with sea turtles (Mansfield was recently appointed to be the lead researcher in a global study of sea turtle behavior), and Dean Jarley spoke about the power of students taking their UCF educations to all corners of the U.S. and around the world, noting that nearly 50,000 UCF alumni hold a degree from the College of Business.

Thomas is the managing partner of the Austin office of CohnReznick Tax and Accounting. He is a native of Central Florida and has had the opportunity to move around the U.S. thanks to his job at the firm. He and his wife attended the 2014 Fiesta Bowl, where his spirit was reignited after visiting the UCF Alumni event tent. During the “Premier Knight in Austin,” he shared his personal enthusiasm for UCF, his desire to connect with other Knights in Austin and to help future Knights through mentoring, internships, professional connections and more.

Want to hold a similar event in your city? Email UCF Alumni for information.

Houston, We Have a Victory!

The Chicago UCF Alumni Chapter cheered on our Knights at the Pony Inn.
The Chicago UCF Alumni Chapter cheered on our Knights at the Pony Inn.
Watch Parties | UCF at Houston

Alumni gathered from coast to coast Thursday evening to watch our Knights play their first conference game of the season, as they took on the Houston Cougars. Many of the alumni association’s regional chapters and clubs hosted watch parties for the matchup — from Florida to San Francisco, and everywhere in between.

In addition, the alumni association hosted an AlumKnight Out at BlackFinn American Grille on Wednesday night to get everyone excited for what ended in another win for the Knights!

Check out more photos from watch parties across the nation.

Surf’s Up!

Alumnus’ passion to hang 10 inspires him to keep an active lifestyle and pursue environmental change

Mitch Varnes, ’85 | President, Smooth Running

By Daniela Marin

The UCF Surf Club is one of the largest non-Greek organizations on campus today, but, nearly 30 years ago, it was the enthusiasm of eight young surfers who laid the foundation for what would become a hub for wave fanatics.

Mitch Varnes, ’85, was one of those students, and went on to co-found the club.

“I think co-founding the UCF Surf Team was probably my first entrepreneurial effort,” he says. “More than anything, it taught me to go out and make things happen.”

Since then, Varnes has additionally founded the Collegiate Surfing Association, the Sebastian Inlet Pro and the Ron Jon Beach ’N Boards Fest.

In efforts to engage his community in an active lifestyle, spur local economic growth and practice sustainability, Varnes currently holds a position as president of Smooth Running.

“I think people should only work at jobs that are fun and that they enjoy,” he says. “I know that sounds altruistic, but it can be done.”

Smooth Running is the producer of endurance events across East Central Florida. Some of these multi-sport events include the Publix Melbourne Music Marathon Weekend, the Ron Jon Cocoa Beach Triathlon and the Rocketman Florida Triathlon, the first privately coordinated sporting event to take place at the Kennedy Space Center.

“Creating events is something I really love to do, and I have formed this career so that I have the flexibility to travel when I want and to spend a lot of time with my children and my wife,” Varnes says.

In 2010, Varnes received the Champion Award from the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce for the economic impact of the Melbourne Music Marathon Weekend.

He additionally received the Entrepreneur of the Year award from Space Coast Magazine, proving his entrepreneurial initiatives while at UCF the first of many.

“I was truly honored to receive that award,” Varnes says. “There are lots of business owners and entrepreneurs here on the space coast so it was a humbling moment for a guy who puts on races, triathlons and surfing events.”

Varnes has been able to incorporate both his passion for surfing and mission for sustainability in the planning and execution of events, such as the Melbourne and Beaches Music Marathon Weekend, which achieved its goal of zero waste in 2012.

“I surround myself with lots of vibrant people in their 20s and 30s, and they have molded our events into among the most sustainable anywhere in the country,” he says.

Varnes and his team recycle everything from water bottles to paper plates and cups, and compost food scraps like orange rinds, banana peels, pizza crust and all else. In 2013, he received the Sustainability Award from Keep Brevard Beautiful.

“I used to think it would be too much work and effort to make sustainability a focus, but it is actually an easy thing once you make it part of your model,” he says. “Now it’s just something we do second nature.”

Contributing to the implementation of sustainable practices is a team of UCF students, which Varnes employs for almost all events. He additionally offers internships to UCF students, and continually speaks at the Devos School of Sports Management.

“It is really inspirational for me to see these students so excited and dedicated to our cause,” he says. “I am very proud of our school and its students.”

Such pride is exemplified by Varnes’ previous involvement in the Space Coast Alumni Board of Directors, on which he served as president for three years, and the Golden Knight’s Board of Directors, the fundraising arm of UCF Athletics.

On Aug. 30, Varnes followed the UCF football team to Dublin, Ireland for its Croke Park Classic game against Penn State. Varnes says that although he is not of Irish heritage, he and his family highly admire the country, and he bought the tickets as soon as they became available.

“We lost that game in the final seconds, but college football does not get any better than that game,” he says. “I think my favorite memory from that game was talking to the Irish people who were just as enthralled with American football and knew all about it. I also enjoyed meeting a couple from Germany who had become UCF fans and traveled to the game with no other connection to UCF.”

Ridin’ the Wave Q&A

Q. Describe a typical day at work.
A. There are few typical days for me, but they usually begin with getting up before daylight and always taking my kids to school. I then usually go back home, read, fish, surf, run or bike for a couple of hours and then head into the office by 10:30 a.m. I work six or eight hours a day, but, in the weeks running up to an event, things intensify quite a bit. It’s not unusual for us to work 20 hours straight during an event.

Q. What’s your favorite thing about your job?
A.The best part of my job is putting on events that make people and their families happy. People circle the dates of our races and train for them for months. It’s also very satisfying to see the local economic impact of what we do. Our events fill hotel rooms and restaurants all over the Space Coast.

Q. Upon co-founding the UCF Surf Team, did you find that it was a struggle to find fellow surfers or was there already the beginning of a community?
A. There was a core group of six or eight of us who actually showed up at every surf contest. We basically would go surf all day at Playalinda [Beach] and come home with a trophy! It’s very cool to see the UCF Surf Team nowadays, and I support them when I can.

Q. How often do you surf? How do you incorporate that into your professional life?
A. I surf as I have time or when there are waves. It sounds kind of crazy, but I actually surf more outside of Florida than at home. With work and our kids, it’s actually easier to get away and surf than it is to surf at home.

Q. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
A. I think I want to be a travel photographer and writer when I grow up.

Q. What advice would you give to a large group of people?
A. Follow your passion and do what makes you happy.

Q. How do you hope your career will transition/grow over the next five years?
A. I plan to still have a few sizable events and to continually fine tune and evolve them. I’m actually pretty comfortable and happy where I am, and just looking to keep things rolling.

Q. How did your education in journalism help get you to where you are today?
A. I’ve written and published hundreds of article and photos. Journalism teaches one discipline and the requirement to meet deadlines.

Q. What’s your favorite memory from your time at UCF?
A. My favorite memories of UCF were being part of what was then a pretty tight-knit school. I am not exaggerating to say that I may have known more students that I didn’t know at the school. Now, it has a massive student population, which is OK too.

More Info

Feeling inspired to volunteer your time for a worthy cause? Check out all of the alumni community service events happening during the eighth annual Knights Give Back on Saturday, Oct. 11.


Sponsor Spotlight: FAIRWINDS Credit Union

Thanks to a $1.2 million gift from FAIRWINDS Credit Union, in 2005, the UCF Alumni Association finally established its permanent home on campus. It was a friendship between fellow Knights Tom Messina, ’84, executive director of the UCF Alumni Association; Mike Hinn, ’92, former alumni board member; and Dianne Owen, ’93, ’97, executive vice president of marketing for FAIRWINDS Credit Union, that built the foundation of this special partnership, which provided UCF alumni their own place on campus to attend and host events.

The UCF FAIRWINDS Alumni Center opened in the fall of 2005.

As the official student banking provider of the university, FAIRWINDS’ on-campus reach extends beyond the alumni association. So, we sat down with Dianne, who is also the immediate past chair of the association’s board of directors, to find out more about this important partnership.

Q. Why did FAIRWINDS Credit Union choose to partner with the UCF Alumni Association?
A. The bigger question to ask is why wouldn’t FAIRWINDS partner with the UCF Alumni Association? UCF is a critical part of the foundation of the Central Florida community. The university is committed to building a better community for us all, not just for Knights. FAIRWINDS shares that same philosophy. As the largest Central Florida-based financial institution, FAIRWINDS is committed to serving the members of our community. UCF alumni make up a significant portion of that population, with so many UCF graduates remaining in Central Florida. We realize the impact that UCF alumni have on our local economy, and we want to be there to serve their financial needs and help improve their financial well-being.

Q. How many alumni are employed by FAIRWINDS Credit Union?
A. Approximately 22 percent of our employees are UCF alumni, with even more currently attending UCF. More specifically, FAIRWINDS’ eight-member Executive Management Team consists of seven UCF alumni. As a team, we really do bleed black and gold!

Q. How has FAIRWINDS benefited since partnering with the UCF Alumni Association?
A. Partnering with the UCF Alumni Association has afforded us exposure to a large influential group of graduates responsible for shaping our Central Florida community. The alumni association is a strong and relevant network of “movers and shakers.” Our partnership has afforded us numerous opportunities to interact and put our name and our mission in front of this successful group. Additionally, the UCF FAIRWINDS Alumni Center alone, with its numerous events, has provided significant brand exposure for us as well.

Q. How does FAIRWINDS contribute to the UCF Alumni Association?
A. In 2001, FAIRWINDS committed $1 million to the UCF Alumni Association to help build an alumni center on campus, now known as the UCF FAIRWINDS Alumni Center. We continued with this commitment beyond its original term due to the mutually beneficial relationship we have fostered with the alumni association. FAIRWINDS has also committed human resources. President and CEO, Larry Tobin ’83, served on the UCF Foundation Board of Directors for six years, and I have served on the UCF Alumni Association Board of Directors for 12 years, which includes serving as immediate past chair.

Q. How is FAIRWINDS involved with UCF Homecoming?
A. FAIRWINDS and its crewmembers always take an active role in Homecoming. From the golf tournament and football game to the Black & Gold Gala, FAIRWINDS crew will be there. And, for the past couple of years, and again this year, FAIRWINDS sponsors the UCF Alumni Homecoming Suite Sweepstakes. All alumni are invited for their chance to win the FAIRWINDS Suite at Bright House Networks Stadium for the Homecoming game. Watch your email for this year’s sweepstakes!

Q. Are there any other points you’d like to share about the partnership?
A. Financial literacy and improving our members’ financial well-being is at the heart of what FAIRWINDS represents. We are excited to work with UCF alumni to achieve this goal, and we are equally excited to be able to work with UCF students prior to graduating. As the UCF Student Banking Partner, it provides us with the opportunity to get students on the right path to financial success upon becoming proud UCF alumni.

Scene of the Crime

Forensic science alumnus’ work helps Oregon police catch the bad guys


Corbett “Cory” Winar, ’97 | Forensic Lab Manager, Oregon State Police

By Angie Lewis, ’03

Shows like “CSI,” “Bones” and “NCIS” make the field of forensic science look exciting, and full of drama and intrigue. However, to the disappointment of crime show lovers everywhere, things don’t quite happen like they do on the small screen. Just ask Cory Winar, ’97, forensic lab manager for the Oregon State Police.

“We wear a lot more clothes, we work with the lights on, we don’t have people working in the lab 24 hours a day — and we stop to go to the bathroom,” Winar explains. “Also, there isn’t one person who stays in the basement with an 80-ounce Slurpee who knows how to do everything.”

But, there is some reality in the fictional plotlines. Forensic scientists can help to solve crimes by analyzing even the smallest pieces of evidence. And, those scenes that show a ballistic expert firing a gun into an object to see how the bullet expands actually happens in real life, too.

For the most part, though, Winar says the cases aren’t all that exciting. As a manager who has to supervise others, he often finds himself caught up in paperwork and politics. However, he does occasionally get to respond to crime scenes and perform tests in the lab, which are the parts he really enjoys.

It was a conversation with his mom that first piqued his interest in forensic science. During his third year at a college in Northern Virginia, Winar decided he wanted a change. Since he had a friend who was going to UCF at the time, he checked out the school and discovered its forensic science program.

“I looked at the curriculum, and I was thinking to myself, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this,’” he says. “It was all this chemistry — physical chemistry, organic chemistry I and II, and calculus. But, I had some good instructors who got me interested in the material, and I was able to do well.”

About six months after graduating, Winar was offered a job in Norfolk, Va. Two years later, he had an opportunity to work in Richmond, Va., where he stayed for nearly three years before a position opened up in Eugene, Ore., and he decided to move west.

“The first time I saw Eugene was in a moving truck,” he says. He worked his way up from a forensic scientist, performing drug analysis, processing trace evidence and working crime scenes, to managing the city’s lab, where he’s been for more than 10 years.

Eugene’s forensic lab is one of five in the state and covers nine counties, for which Winar and his team processed more than 5,500 cases last year.

The most challenging case he’s had to process? A hit and run, where he had to try to match paint found on the victim to the suspect’s car. Although the arresting officers were sure they had the right guy, the evidence showed otherwise.

While Winar’s cases are always mentally challenging, some are also emotionally difficult to process — like one crime scene in which a young mother had been stabbed and her 5 ½-month-old baby had also been stabbed and had its throat slit.

“Having to try to focus on the scene and having two kids, it’s even more difficult to see that,” he explains. “That was probably the hardest one I’ll ever have to do, because I still remember faces with it.”

He does his best to keep his work life separate from his home life with his wife and two kids. Since moving to Oregon, he’s taken up running, which he says is a good release because it gives him a chance to process things in his mind. He enjoys running so much that he’s even run several marathons and ultramarathons [a longer distance than a traditional marathon’s 26.2 miles].

Although he lives more than 3,000 miles from his alma mater, Winar hasn’t forgotten the school that helped him get where he is today. He says UCF’s forensic science program really prepared him for the field, and that most of the people who call him for career advice are going to schools that have a forensic science program in criminal justice, which, he says, won’t teach them what a forensic scientist actually does.

“UCF and the program Dr. [William] McGee put together really prepares you to go into a forensic lab, because it has classes in the disciplines in which you can work, as opposed to a theory-based criminalistics class where you just sit and talk about theories,” he explains. “You actually get your hands in there.”

He advises current forensic science students to appreciate the amount of information and knowledge they’re going to get at UCF, because he says the other programs out there are not as good. Confidence is also very important, he adds.

“In this field, we’re looking for someone who has a knowledge base, but also good personal skills, because you’re going to have to communicate on the stand, in front of a jury, as well as with other scientists. Work on those interpersonal skills and how you want to present yourself, and don’t be afraid to be yourself.”

Under the Microscope Q&A

Q. Favorite UCF memory?
A. Graduating — the feeling of remembering back to that first semester, going there with the pessimism of “we’ll see what happens,” and graduating. Along the way, the biggest challenge that came was my second semester on spring break, when my dad died. Finishing up that semester and getting back on track was difficult. Getting through it at that point and finishing was a big thing. So, I remember standing outside of the old arena and thinking, “Wow, I’m done! I did it!”

Q. Favorite UCF professor?
A. Dr. Barry Fookes [who taught microscopy and trace evidence classes]. I thought he was a wealth of knowledge, and he shared it in a way that I was able to understand.

Q. Were you involved in any extracurricular activities at UCF?
A. I coached co-ed soccer, and refereed for co-ed volleyball and soccer.

Q. Favorite TV show based on forensic science?
A. “Dexter”

Q. Favorite piece of lab equipment to work with?
A. I’m kind of old school. I like the good old microscope. It’s amazing how much information you can get from one.

Q. Have you made any mistakes on the job that you can now look back at and laugh?
A. I went to a crime scene where the room smelled like decomposition because the deceased had been there for over a week. I got home about 3 or 4 a.m. and was so tired that I just changed my clothes and crashed on the bed. I woke up to an upset wife because I still stunk like a dead body. I did not make that mistake again.

Q. What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever had to process in the lab?
A. Bloody clothing with maggots and other bugs still moving around. I felt like bugs were on me for the next few days.

Q. Any hidden talents?
A. I’m a pretty good cook.

Q. Best thing about living in Eugene, Ore.?
A. The slower pace of life and being able to spend time with my family instead of commuting to and from work. Everything is outdoorsy, even in the rainy and gray winter. There are several great wineries and microbreweries here in the Eugene area, not to mention across the rest of the state.

Q. Tell us about your family.
A. I’ve been married for four years to Tina Tague, who is an editor for scientific papers and journals. I met her when she was in graduate school and I was one of the instructors (dating started after she was in my class, of course). We have two rockin’ kids, a 2-year-old son, Brooks, and an 8-month-old daughter, Cullen. My mom is a Realtor, and my father passed away during my second semester at UCF. I have a brother, Curtis, and a sister, Dina. I’m the only UCF alumnus in the Winar clan. We have two dogs, Sasha and Daisy, and two cats, Casper and Maggie.

Q. A giant meteor is hurling through the atmosphere toward Earth, and life as we know it will cease to exist by this time tomorrow. How will you spend your last 24 hours?
A. Building my spaceship to get my family and friends to space for a galactic party.

Q. If someone made a movie about you, what would the title be?
A. “Why Not?”

Q. Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
A. Don’t underestimate yourself. You can do anything you want.

Q. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
A. Brewmaster

Q. What profession would you not like to do?
A. Middle school teacher

Because She Cannes Cannes Cannes

Alumna’s short film honored at world’s most prestigious festival


Katie Damien, ’01 | Filmmaker, Gorilla with a Mustache Films

By Angie Lewis, ’03

Growing up in a family of movie buffs and watching the Oscars every year, it seemed Katie Damien, ’01, was predestined for a future in film. In fact, she made her first movie when she was 12 years old. And, she hasn’t stopped making movies since.

Born and raised in Florida, Damien chose to attend UCF because, in her opinion, it had the best film program in the state.

“Film students could direct their own work, they got to keep all the rights to their films, and Orlando is the perfect place to be for filmmaking, with all the studios nearby and the city being so production friendly,” she explains. “‘The Blair Witch Project’ had just come out, and UCF’s film program was the place to be.”

Today, she’s the owner of Kd Multimedia, a writer and director, and one of five producers in Gorilla with a Mustache Films.

Damien started the film company with a team of filmmakers she joined in 2010, in order to compete in the 48 Hour Film Project. After winning the competition’s top prize for their short film, “Touched by Angels,” they decided to make more movies together.

Last year, the group competed in the National Film Challenge. But, instead of competing against other local filmmakers, they were competing with filmmakers around the world. In addition, each team was assigned a genre, a character, a prop and line of dialogue that had to be used in its film.

After a long session of brainstorming, one of Damien’s teammates told a story about a friend who rented a car and ended up with the same make and model someone else at the agency had already rented. He didn’t realize he drove off with the wrong car — until he stopped, opened the trunk and found it full of drugs. So, it got them thinking: What would you do if you suddenly found yourself accidentally in possession of a bunch of drugs? And, again, the group won for its short film, “Joint Effort.”

“I was out of my mind excited [when I learned we won],” Damien says. “I was screaming on the phone with the other members of my team. I was in an office full of people when I found out, and they all started to gather around as I was jumping up and down, screaming like a fool.”

But, the excitement didn’t stop there. The National Film Challenge win sent their film to the Short Film Corner at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

“I knew that Cannes was the top prize, [but] I had to get on a computer real quick and look for myself to make sure it was true,” Damien continues. “When I saw the win with my own eyes, that’s when the screaming started [again].”

Not surprisingly, Damien’s biggest dream is to some day win an Oscar.

“But, in the immediate future,” she says, “I’d just like to have a big enough budget that I can do all the things I want to in a given movie, and be able to pay all my cast and crew properly.”

Q&A Reel

Q. Who was your favorite professor, and why?
A. Sterling Van Wagenen was the director of the film program when I was there. He also taught a directing class that I took. He was amazing. It wasn’t just the knowledge he imparted or the extremely helpful real-world advice he would give, but he had a soothing demeanor about him. He had a way of squeezing your shoulder that just made you feel like everything would be okay. And for a stressed-out film student, sometimes a shoulder squeeze was exactly what you needed. Mary Johnson was a fantastic screenwriting teacher! I still use her template for creating characters when I write scripts. Mark Gerstein and Lori Ingle were also amazing editing teachers. I learned so much from them. And, I can’t skip Jonathan Mednick, my documentary film teacher. He gave me the best advice my senior year. I was working on a short documentary, and he watched it as a work-in-progress and told me: “Make it about the people. Tell their story and the rest will fall into place.” He died suddenly and unexpectedly that summer. I will always carry those words with me. 

Q. How has your UCF degree helped you in your career?
A. Having a film degree, while not essential in this industry, has certainly opened a lot of doors for me. I think the quality of the education I received helped boost the professionalism of my work by leaps and bounds. I was able to try new and difficult things, take risks and fail, all without losing credibility, because I was in a supportive learning environment.

Q. Describe some of your previous films.
A. I’m just now releasing my first documentary feature film, “My Toxic Backyard,” about a community that has been fighting for clean, safe drinking water for decades since it discovered its water was contaminated by an old manufacturing plant where toxic chemicals were dumped into the ground. I’ve made a few comedy films — one comedy/horror about a vampire with a toothache. I made a short drama, “Second Parent,” about how gay parents can’t jointly adopt a child. And, I made a horror film about a couple that accidentally runs over a guy with their car and soon find themselves victims of an elaborate scheme.

Q. Are you currently working on any other film projects?
A. I’m currently in post-production on my first comedy feature film with the same group I made “Joint Effort.” It’s called “One Hell of an Angel,” and it’s about a demon who gets in trouble for asking too many questions in hell and is punished by being forced to work with an angel on an impossible mission to get a washed up rock star to write a song that will change everything.

Q. All-time favorite movie?
A. “Strictly Ballroom”

Q. Worst movie you’ve ever seen?
A. The first movie I ever made as a kid. It was so bad I destroyed it.

Q. Favorite movie genre?
A. Action

Q. If someone made a movie about your life, what would the title be?
A. “The Mad World of a Creative Mind”

Q. What or who inspires you?
A. In the film world, Robert Zemeckis. That man can make any kind of movie and make it well.

Q. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
A. Beer taster. I’ve heard that’s a thing…

More Info

Check out Katie Damien’s day-by-day journal of her experience in Cannes.

Standing for Opportunity


Paul Fermo, ’92 | Commander, U.S. Navy

By Lauren Whalley

“I decided to take a tour of the school, and I was sold”, says Comm. Paul Fermo, U.S.N., ’92, who chose to pursue his bachelor’s degree at UCF in business management.

“I could apply my degree directly to business or something else I chose to do. Whether you are in private industry, government or nonprofit, there’s always going to be some element of business and management involved. I see that in the work that I do at the Pentagon.”

Outside of academics, Paul was involved in various organizations on campus, including the Orientation Team, LEAD Scholars program, and was even nominated for Homecoming court. He also held several office positions for his fraternity, Sigma Chi, which included chapter president.

“I definitely made the most of my years at UCF”, he says. “UCF is doing great things in many fields — engineering, management, computer science, medicine — there’s so much to be proud of. I hope [current] students are proud of the school, because, as a UCF alumnus, I certainly am.”

In addition to Paul’s UCF education, he’s been awarded several additional degrees, including two master’s degress, but he hasn’t stopped there. Paul was recently accepted into MIT to pursue his third master’s degree, this time in business administration. He credits UCF for motivating him to keep furthering his education.

“UCF was my first introduction to the idea that education is about challenging the way I think about things, and what I learned in the classroom could be applied directly to what I did outside of the classroom.”

A Knight of Opportunity
Paul knew he wanted to become a Navy fighter pilot at a young age, when his father took him to see the Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron, and Paul’s childhood dream became his reality. For several years, he served as a combat search-and-rescue helicopter pilot, and, in 2001, Paul was chosen for a highly selective transition program from helicopters to jets.

“After being deployed several times to both Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m fortunate enough to be one of the very few naval aviators who can say that they’ve led combat missions in both helicopters and jets,” he says.

Due to his vast experience, Paul was chosen to serve as a fellow for a member of Congress who served on the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.

“It was an incredible experience for me. It made me a much more informed strategic leader.”

Paul currently serves as the Air-Sea Branch chief for the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he addresses Department of Defense immediate and long-term tactical aviation and maritime force requirements.

In Paul’s military career, he says the UCF Creed is constantly in motion. “Integrity, excellence, community — they’re all central to the ethos of the military profession.”

It’s not just through his military service that Paul proudly represents the creed, but also in his personal life, where he is a member of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. During his last deployment to Afghanistan, the Baltimore Chapter held its annual walk for JDRF, and, although Paul was not there physically to participate, he was able to address the entire crowd from his base on the jumbotron at the Baltimore Ravens Stadium.

“It was a way of bringing a global awareness to a disease,” he says.

Measure of a Knight’s Success
According to Paul, the greatest benefit of being in the military is the people with whom he gets to work and interact.

“The military is a human organization, and it’s comprised of an amazing collection of bright, selfless and dedicated professionals. I’m honored to have made some friends, and I’m sad to have lost a few along the way, but it’s really great to serve with men and women that I admire”, he says. “The greatest measure of my success is knowing that I have served my country well.”


Q. If you could visit any historical site in the world, what would it be and why?
A. The Great Wall of China. It’s a fascinating structure.

Q. What kind of car did you drive in college?
A. I drove a beat-up old Toyota!

Q. Batman or Superman?
A. Superman. He can fly!