A Knight of Honor

The UCF Alumni Association will present its annual awards during Homecoming week

(PHOTO: Brandon Chestnut)
(PHOTO: Brandon Chestnut)

For the past 34 years, the UCF Alumni Association has been honoring Knights who “Reach for the Stars.” Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing the stories of this year’s recipients, who will be presented with their Knighty statues (as seen above) at the 2014 Black & Gold Gala on Thursday, Oct. 23.

The Distinguished Alumnus/a award is the association’s top award, given to someone who has risen in his/her profession to a national level. The Distinguished Student award is given to a current undergraduate student who is active on campus and in the community, and has displayed leadership and academic success. The Service to UCF award is given to an alumnus/a who has served UCF over a number of years either as a volunteer or lifetime employee. The Professional Achievement award winners are selected by each individual college and are given to alumni who are standouts in their respective fields.

Check out this year’s awardees:

Top Awards

Distinguished Alumna

Lesa Roe, ’91 | Deputy Associate Administrator, NASA

Distinguished Student

Cynthia Florentino, ’14 | Google Policy Fellow, U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

Service to UCF

Melanie Fernandez, ’86, ’91 | Partner, Cross, Fernandez & Riley LLP

Professional Achievement Awards

The Burnett Honors College

David Huffaker, ’97 | Senior Researcher, Google Inc.

College of Arts and Humanities

Rob Schaer, Ph.D., ’02 | Musician, self-employed

College of Business Administration

Mary Merrell Bailey, J.D., ’85, ’89, ’01, ’07 | Managing Partner, Your Caring Law Firm

College of Education and Human Performance

Pam Stewart, ’85 | Commissioner of Education, Florida Department of Education

College of Engineering and Computer Science

Vinod Philip, ’00 | CEO (Generators Business Segment), Siemens Energy Inc.

College of Health and Public Affairs

Lt. Jean-Marc Chanoine, J.D., ’07 | Navy Judge Advocate Corps, U.S. Navy

College of Medicine

James Norman, M.D., ’82 | Senior Surgeon, Norman Parathyroid Center

College of Nursing

Patricia Celano, ’10 | CNO/Vice President, Florida Hospital Orlando

College of Optics and Photonics (CREOL)

Michael Mielke, Ph.D., ’00, ’03 | Chief Scientist, Raydiance

College of Sciences

Gwen Griffin, ’85 | CEO, Griffin Communications Group

Rosen College of Hospitality Management

Stuart Newmark, ’08 | Executive Vice President/COO, Yedla Management Company

Stay tuned for more about these ambitious Knights:

  • Week of Oct. 27 — Lesa, Cynthia and Melanie
  • Week of Nov. 3 — David, Rob, Mary, Pam, Vinod and Jean-Marc
  • Week of Nov. 10 — James, Patricia, Michael, Gwen and Stuart

Three Blades to the Wind

Engineering alumnus helps harvest natural energy


Michael Hayman, ’03 | Professional Engineer/Project Manager, Moventas

By Angie Lewis, ’03

If you’ve ever driven through Texas, California or Iowa, you’ve probably passed a field of steel towers that look like giant fans. These wind turbines, situated on wind farms, capture the natural wind in our atmosphere and convert it into mechanical energy, then electricity.

“What a lot of people call a fan is the rotor on a wind turbine,” explains Michael Hayman, ’03, professional engineer and project manager for Moventas in Portland, Ore. “These things turn about 14 to 20 rotations per minute, but, a generator, which makes electricity, needs to turn at about 1,000 rpm. So, we make a bunch of gears that turn this from high torque, low rotation to low torque, high rotation. It’s a transmission system, very similar to a car, but it’s just one speed.”


Like most engineers, Hayman showed an inclination toward math and science in school. Working on cars with his dad during his childhood steered him toward an interest in mechanical systems. Although he set his sights on being a pilot for the Air Force or Army, his cataracts prevented him from serving in the military. Instead, he went back to his foundation and pursued a degree in mechanical engineering.

Hayman started his career at the Kennedy Space Center, where he was part of the Return to Flight program after the Columbia disaster, in which he was involved with getting Discovery back up and running. A few years later, knowing the shuttle program would eventually be coming to an end, he sent out his resume, and was contacted by Celerity, a company in Portland that makes machines that make microchips. After a few years working on the design side of engineering, he realized it wasn’t for him, so he once again sent out his resume, and then heard from Vestas, which makes wind turbines. That’s where he discovered a love for wind energy.

Wind technology is important to our future because there are no emissions, Hayman says. “I think that as far as all of the new renewable energies go, wind technology is the most viable right now. A couple of years ago, before fracking really started taking over, about 2008, the price of wind energy was actually less than oil. And, I think we’ll continue to go down that trend, because technology has come along where we’re getting into the megawatt class of electricity, and we can be considered more of a major provider in this niche field.”

Hayman says studies have shown that wind energy could provide about 20 percent of the national power need, whereas, now, it provides less than 1 percent.

So, where can you harvest wind energy? In the U.S., the middle of the country is perfect — the plains region, in particular — because of the constant, steady flow of wind from one direction, Hayman explains. There are many wind farms in the Northeast, but not so many in the Southeast, due to the region’s frequent afternoon thunderstorms, which produce turbulent airflow and would cause a lot of wear on the turbines — and that wouldn’t be profitable.

Wind farms, like this one, typically use three-bladed turbines, which harvest wind and convert it into energy.

Although the Moventas factory produces gearboxes, as a project manager, Hayman spends most of his time dealing with customer service and problem solving. Compared to some of his previous positions, this position allows him to have a lot of latitude in making decisions and running his department the way he sees fit, which he really enjoys.

“I also take a lot of satisfaction when we implement a program and it works, and we get customer satisfaction out of that,” he says. “I like being able to set ourselves up for success.”

Power Up Q&A

Q. Favorite UCF memory?
A. I don’t know if those are fit to print! I was in the Greek system. I was a Pi Kappa Phi. I was also a senator for three years for the College of Engineering, and I was the finance chairman [for the Student Government Association]. Before I was 21, I had a $6.5 million budget (through SGA). It was all of those experiences, where, for as young as I was, I had a lot of influence for what happened on campus. It felt like I was making a difference on campus. I believe I was finance chairman when we approved George O’Leary’s contract. I was also there when we approved the budget to build the Rec Center, and for the expansion of the Student Union. So, it felt like, hey, we’re doing big things, and that was a point of pride while I was there.

Q. What advice would you give to current UCF engineering students?
A. Don’t be as concerned about your grades. Do as well as you can. There were so many people in that program who were just worried about doing well in class and not really seeking out internships and co-ops or any sort of practical experience. Engineering within school and within the profession are night and day different. While in school, I went out and found an internship for myself. I worked two summers at Tampa Electric Company. I feel like the classroom education is definitely your foundation, and you need to have that, and I got an excellent experience from UCF. But, you need actual, practical, day-to-day experience. Because we were working, our grades probably suffered a little bit, but all of us who did work left college with a job. And, I knew a lot of straight-A students in engineering — which is almost impossible to do — who were left on the bench. If you’re concerned about having a job when you graduate, internships are the way to go.

Q. Any hidden talents?
A. I play the guitar — poorly. When I moved to Portland, I started taking improv classes. I started performing improv and stand-up a few years ago. I haven’t done much recently due to a busy schedule, but it’s something I think I’ll do off and on for a long time.

Q. What’s the wallpaper on your phone and/or computer?
A. The wallpaper on my personal computer is a night launch of the space shuttle. The wallpaper on my phone is my girlfriend and I wine tasting.

Q. What’s your No. 1-most-played song?
A. Comfortably Numb — Pink Floyd

Q. What TV show are you embarrassed to admit watching?
A. It used to be “Fashion Police.” RIP, Joan. I guess now it would be “Deadliest Catch.”

Q. Last book you read?
A. “American Fraternity Man” written by one of my fraternity brothers and UCF Professor, Nathan Holic, ’02

Q. Best thing about living in Portland?
A. So many things are so close. There are more breweries in Portland than anywhere else. An hour south is premium wine country. An hour to the west is the Pacific Ocean. An hour to the east is Mt Hood, great snowboarding in the winter and camping in the summer. An hour to the north is Mt. St. Helens, which is also great hiking. There are a number of farms in the area, so there’s great local produce. And, everyone up here is so friendly.

Q. Favorite childhood toy?
A. Transformers

Q. What/who makes you laugh out loud?
A. I like a number of comedians, but I have to give it to Daniel Tosh, ’96, a UCF alumnus.

Sponsor Spotlight: Curley & Pynn

Roger Pynn, ’73, president of Curley & Pynn and chair of the UCF College of Sciences Dean’s Advisory Board, has been a supporter of his alma mater and the UCF Alumni Association since he graduated. Dan Ward, ’92, vice president of Curley & Pynn, began serving on the UCF Alumni Association Board of Directors in 2006, and is currently back on the board for yet another term. With the association’s need for public relations, Roger, Dan and their partner, Kim Taylor (a UF alumna), stepped forward to help. Most recently, they have contributed their expertise to the alumni association’s strategic plan, which was implemented on July 1.

Dan Ward, '92 (left), and Roger Pynn, '73, toast their alma mater in the conference room at Curley & Pynn.
Dan Ward, ’92 (left), and Roger Pynn, ’73, toast their alma mater in the conference room at public relations firm and UCF Alumni partner, Curley & Pynn.

We sat down with Roger and Dan to ask them more about this integral partnership.

Q. Describe the history of Curley & Pynn’s partnership with the UCF Alumni Association.
A. Curley & Pynn has been a proud partner of the UCF Alumni Association for many years. Roger’s walls are covered with memories of alumni association projects, including one of his earliest efforts, leading the Alumni Trust — a drive to raise $1 million for scholarships for merit scholars. The donors are recognized in perpetuity at Alumni Trust Plaza in front of Millican Hall, where the statue honoring former UCF President Charles Millican stands.

Roger was named Distinguished Alumnus in 1989. Dan served on the alumni board of directors for six years, and was asked by current Chair Peter Cranis, ’84, to return for another one-year term.

Q. Why does Curley & Pynn choose to partner with the UCF Alumni Association?
A. First and foremost, we partner with UCF Alumni because of our love for the university and the impact it has had on our firm and our team of professionals. We also are drawn to the association’s mission. As a public relations firm, much of what we do is based on engagement, and the creation and management of relationships, and that’s central to the Alumni mission as well.

Q. How many UCF alumni does Curley & Pynn employ?
A. We currently employ five proud UCF Knights, as well as an intern from the UCF Nicholson School of Communication. A degree is not a prerequisite for employment, but it certainly doesn’t hurt!

Q. How has Curley & Pynn benefited since partnering with the UCF Alumni Association?
A. The primary benefit for any UCF Alumni partner is relationship building. The UCF Alumni Association creates opportunities for all alumni to connect with one another, with the university and with business partners throughout the region. The old saying that you’re judged by the company you keep is true, and we believe UCF Alumni has reached a point of prominence throughout the state.

Q. How does Curley & Pynn contribute to the UCF Alumni Association?
A. In addition to our board service, Curley & Pynn provides in-kind public relations advice and counsel to the association. We also assign an account team to manage brand identification and strategic communication programs for the association, in support of its strategic plan.

Q. How is Curley & Pynn involved with UCF Homecoming?
A. We’ve long been sponsors of the Black & Gold Gala, and work each year to drive public awareness of Homecoming events and of Distinguished Alumnus award winners.

Q. Is there any additional information you’d like to share about the Curley & Pynn and UCF Alumni Association partnership?
A. We’re tremendously excited about the year ahead, as we develop communication strategies and programs to support the 2014-2019 strategic plan, which seeks to expand the reach of the association and refine its focus around themes of communication, engagement, relevancy and sustainable funding.

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.