UCF Alumnus Memorializes Pulse Tragedy Through Art

Last month, UCF art grad Forrest Lawson ’18 bested more than 400 artists for top honors and a $50,000 award at a regional competition for his piece 6/12/2016, a sculpture he created to memorialize the Pulse tragedy, honor its victims and communicate the emotions and responses the shooting awakened across communities.

Born and raised in a small town in between Naples and Sarasota, Punta Gorda (“we call it the In Between because there really is nothing going on there”), Lawson somewhat explored his creativity growing up, but hadn’t really thought of it as a future career path.

“I was always drawing very macabre things, because I was a gay teen in the closet,” Lawson says. “But I never really explored it until I got to college because back then it was like I had to become a dentist or a doctor.”

Lawson, who met his now-husband during their sophomore year of high school, was bullied growing up for being gay long before he even came out. Because of this, he and his husband dated secretly for a few years until officially making their relationship public following graduation.

“It was more of a survival thing; I was just denying it because I didn’t want to have to confront other people or myself,” Lawson says.

After high school graduation, Lawson attended Florida Gulf Coast University, before transferring to Valencia College to major in architecture. But once he realized he was having more fun building actual models, he took advantage of the DirectConnect to UCF program and switched to majoring in art by the time he arrived at UCF in 2014.

“Coming to UCF was a great experience for my work and growth,” Lawson says. “I just never really felt the sense of community that I feel in Orlando anywhere else. For me, UCF was the right choice.”

The decision Lawson made to switch from architecture to art was in large part due to the joy he found in the creation of tangible objects.

“I think I have control issues, even still, because so much of my life and coming out felt out of control,” Lawson says. “So I think for me, having that control over tangible clay and making sculptures, it makes me feel a little more stable.”

During his years at UCF, Lawson was able to implement a community aspect to his work by doing more outreach-driven projects, taking his initial vision and allowing others to participate in its execution.

Shortly after the Pulse tragedy  in Orlando on June 12, 2016, Lawson and several of his friends came across an article that said a long-standing FDA ban had been lifted. The ban in question specifies, “Men who have had sex with other men (MSM), at any time since 1977 (the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the United States) are currently deferred as blood donors.” When Lawson showed up to donate, however, it became clear that the article was false — the ban was still very much in place.

“We had literally just been gunned down in what we kind of equated to a church for us,” Lawson says. “We had been told at that point we were worthless because somebody wanted us dead. And so, we wanted to help. We wanted to donate blood and help our brothers and sisters. But we couldn’t. It was a slap in the face, just, ‘no, you’re still worthless, don’t bring that here.’ It was a kick when we were down.”

“Thirty people participated after being asked to donate blood and answer questions required by the FDA during the initial screening process. The project began first as an attempt to spread feelings of alienation and rejection felt among gay males towards their straight counterparts, but the process only ended up highlighting the discrimination and educating the participants of their inherent privilege.” -forrestlawson.com/gallery

Most of Lawson’s work is a response to his own anger. And being turned away from donating blood and doing all he could to help the victims of Pulse made him angry. So he got to work creating the sculpture Better Blood (seen right).

“Artists have a task, in society, to paint the revolution in a way that people can connect with,” Lawson says. “I want to use the platform that I have in whatever capacity that I have to communicate that ignorance and hatred are not acceptable.”

While creating Better Blood was a helpful experience for Lawson to express his frustration, he was still eager to create something that would memorialize the Pulse tragedy and honor the victims.

This motivation would eventually become 6/12/2016, which involves 49 cubes with the names of the victims hand-stamped and their dates of birth. The cubes also contain the two commonalities between each of the 49 victims – their death date and the wristband they were wearing the night of the shooting. Lawson posted a nationwide call for people to submit their response to the tragedy and each of the narratives selected are juxtaposed to a name and wristband.Putting together 6/12/2016 took Lawson about five months. He describes it as a long and emotionally exhausting process.

“It definitely made me confront a lot of feelings that I hadn’t yet,” Lawson says. “I had feelings of alienation and separation anxiety after the shooting. Pulse was actually the first club that I’d ever gone to. So it was strange, especially going there and seeing the pictures. I don’t think there’s ever going to be a time where I’ll fully process it, but doing this at least did make me confront it.”

This past May, 6/12/12016 and Lawson headed to Lake City, South Carolina to compete in the ArtFields competition. ArtFields began in 2013 with a simple goal to honor the artists of the southeast with a week’s worth of celebration and competition. This year’s event involved 400 artists showing pieces over the course of eight days, culminating in 12 awards presented. Lawson recalls feeling relieved after the smaller-in-dollar-amount prizes had been awarded because he was nervous about having to get up onstage and give a speech. He hadn’t begun to fathom he’d be the recipient of the grand prize of $50,000.

“I whimpered and I cried in front of 400 people,” Lawson says while describing the surreal moment of his win.

For the most part Lawson has very responsible plans for his $50,000 reward – pay off student loans, help out with his upcoming move to the University of Georgia where he’ll soon be starting the MFA program– but he did cook a big meal for his friends and go out for his first filet mignon in six years.

Lawson knows that his success is due in large part to his willingness to push past doubters or those who may root against him by turning that negativity into something beautiful. His advice to up-and-coming artists is to do the same, even when that negativity may be on the inside.

“Research, read a lot, learn about galleries you should be in touch with. And stick with it,” he says. “It’s so cliche, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Don’t let your inner saboteur talk you out of being creative if that’s what you’re meant for.”

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.

Cornerstone: Alumnus Ties Nonprofit Impact Back to Foundational UCF Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come Fly With Me: Alumna Trades Airlines for TV Production

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Guy: Alumnus Unites Local Dads With Inclusive Fatherhood Group

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

By Jenna Marina Lee

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

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

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

The same Google search for dads? Not so much.

Not until Gutierrez stepped in.

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

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

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

The only prerequisite is being a dad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 NFL Draft: Brought To You By UCF Alumni

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

By Jenna Marina Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UCF Alumni Building A More Sustainable Orlando

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

By Jenna Marina Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Buzz On Alumna Kristin Harris

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

By Jenna Marina Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then she checked her inbox.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More To Her Story

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

By Jenna Marina Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pride Commons Connection Leads To UCF Love Story

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

By Jenna Marina Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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