UCF Film Alumnus Hits It Big at Today Show

UCF alumnus Aaron Brownlee joined the NBC News team as a producer for the “Today” show

By Jenna Marina

ORLANDO, Fla. (Aug. 29, 2017) – UCF film alumnus Aaron Brownlee ’06 has stood on the New York City stage where the Broadway hit “Hamilton” performs every night. He has interviewed Academy Award winner Robert De Niro, taken flight with the United States Air Force Thunderbirds and has brought joy to pediatric cancer patients by delivering beanies to them in their hospital rooms.

Brownlee’s role as a producer over the last year for NBC’s the “Today” show has already given him a lifetime’s worth of unforgettable experiences, but what really makes him pinch himself is his trek to Rockefeller Center’s commissary every day for lunch.

When he reaches the ninth floor, he steps off the elevator and turns right instead of left toward the food.

A fan of “Saturday Night Live” since he was a child, he never misses a chance to go peek at the stage and silently reflect on this moment in his life.

“I look at this holy grail of comedy and I think to myself, ‘You’re here. Even if it’s a bad day, you’re staring at Lorne Michaels’ dreamland right here,’” Brownlee said. “Take it in, always appreciate every day.”

Aaron Brownlee (right) interviewed Lin Manuel Miranda (left) for a segment about the Broadway hit “Hamilton”

Brownlee has been a storyteller for as long as he can remember. Growing up in Georgia, he put on plays with his brother in their basement and says he shot an original hour-and-a-half James Bond film before he could drive a car.

He came to UCF because he liked that the university allowed its film students to own the work they created while in school.

“I would run to class because every day I was learning something I was so passionate about. It was a joy to go to class,” he said. “Being around a lot of creative people with a lot of different point of views helped changed the way I wanted to tell stories.”

After graduation, he headed to California thanks to an internship connection that UCF had with UCLA. He got his start as an assistant for a producer who was making horror films.

He spent the next decade filling up his resume with experiences as a production assistant on “NCIS,” various full-time jobs and a freelance producer, working on a variety of projects from advertisements to music videos to print with companies like Target, Best Buy and People magazine.

In 2016, a mentor asked him about his interest in applying for a job at the “Today” show. The opportunity to work for the nation’s longest running morning show, which is currently celebrating its 65th year on NBC, intrigued him.

He went through a series of interviews and still remembers the day he got the phone call asking if he was ready to move to New York.

“I never have doubted myself, but for the very first time, just knowing that it’s such an institution and it’s one of a kind, I had this whole bout of unwavering self-doubt. I was just like, ‘Did you talk yourself into this? What did you just do? Are they going to figure out you’re a phony within the first 10 minutes?’” he said. “Looking back on that moment, that’s when I knew that I really, really wanted it, and wanted to work for them.”

On the set of the “Today” show

Since joining the production team, he estimates that he has created at least three hours of television. His segments range from 3-4 minutes on average, and he typically works on four projects at any given time.

His real passion lies in telling people’s stories and creating an emotional connection between audience and subject. He said when people are trusting the “Today” show to tell their stories, he feels a responsibility to “get it right.”

“Being able to tell stories about real people that matter, who are doing great things in life and trying to help people; being able to put that on a national platform and get letters and emails and cards that say, ‘You’ve changed my life’ or ‘We’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars because of your piece,’ that’s what is most rewarding,” Brownlee said. “I can see the fruits of the labor of my work.”

With the surge of television access on platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon in addition to traditional media, Brownlee, like most, believes society is experiencing the golden age of television.

He is happy to be contributing to it and hopes to continue to expand the depths of his storytelling.

“One day, if I have a drama or a dramedy on television or streaming on Netflix and people are loving it and it has a part of myself inside of it,” he said, “that would be the ultimate dream.”

Aaron Brownlee with his parents behind the scenes at Rockefeller Center

Five Things Alumni Need to Know — Nov. 23, 2015

30-under-30-awardees

Here are five things you should know this week:

  1. On Friday evening, the UCF Alumni Association honored 30 young alumni (see photo above), for their outstanding achievements, during its inaugural 30 under 30 awards dinner.
  2. C-SPAN network’s Campaign 2016 mobile newsroom visited the UCF campus on Wednesday to broadcast an interview with psychology Professor Deborah Beidel about her studies of anxiety, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, and provided an opportunity for students and others to board the bus and learn about the public affairs’ network’s political coverage and other programs.
  3. Last Monday, UCF journalism students got to hear from the parents of Steven Sotloff, a former UCF journalism student who lost his life at the hands of ISIS. In his honor, his family has established the Steven Sotloff Memorial Endowed Fund. (Plus, his legacy lives on in UCF students.)
  4. UCF hired The State University of New York at Buffalo’s Danny White as its new athletics director. “Danny is one of the nation’s rising stars in college athletics, and his talent, determination, energy and creativity will guide our program to a bright future,” UCF President John C. Hitt says.
  5. UCF’s Programming Team won its fourth-consecutive “Battle of the Brains” competition, a super-contest of computer programming. Three UCF computer science students dominated over their competitors from universities in the Southeast, advancing them to the World Finals, representing the best of 10,000 computer programming teams from 90 countries.

Philly Alumni Club Welcomes Knights from Six Other Regions

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By Angie Lewis, ’03

The Philadelphia UCF Alumni Club welcomed Knights from Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Connecticut, New York and Washington, D.C., to their city for last Saturday’s UCF football game against Temple.

Nearly 125 (chilly!) UCF fans were in attendance at Lincoln Financial Field, which is home to the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.

“Despite the loss, it was great to welcome fellow Knights to the City of Brotherly Love, and to make so many new friends,” says Brittani DiPaolo, co-chair of the Philadelphia UCF Alumni Club.

Learn More

UCF Alumni Chapters and Clubs

Five Things Alumni Need to Know — Aug. 17, 2015

Knights-on-the-Mall-map

Here are five things you should know this week:

  1. Knights on the Mall tailgating spots are up for grabs, as the new reservation system went live today for UCF’s first home game against FIU on Sept. 3.
  2. And, speaking of football, the Knights’ former QB Blake Bortles made his sophomore debut in Friday’s preseason game against the Steelers, helping to lead the Jags to a 23-21 victory!
  3. Alumna Jennifer Hamilton, ’14, turned her capstone project into multi-million-dollar Sleep/EEG Center for Nemours Children’s Hospital.
  4. Central Florida’s king of hummus, UCF student Jesse Wolfe, landed a deal with Publix Super Markets, which will now carry his new line of salad dressings.
  5. U.S. veterans are sharing personal stories about their service experiences to be preserved for future generations.

O’Dang! Look Who Landed a Big Deal with Publix!

Jesse Wolfe, founder and CEO of O'Dang Hummus, at Orlando's East End Market, which carries his products (PHOTO: Jim Carchidi)
Jesse Wolfe, founder and CEO of O’Dang Hummus, at Orlando’s East End Market, which carries his products (PHOTO: Jim Carchidi)

By Matthew Richardson
Reporter, Orlando Business Journal

A University of Central Florida student known for his hummus landed a deal with a big supermarket chain to carry his product, but it’s not the product he’s widely known for.

Jesse Wolfe, founder and CEO of O’Dang Hummus, told the Orlando Business Journal that he closed on a deal with Publix Super Markets Inc. this month for the stores to carry his new salad dressing product. Wolfe’s product will be available at all of Publix’s 1,106 locations throughout six states. Wolfe still sells his hummus products at local farmer’s markets throughout Central Florida.

Wolfe, whose popular hummus comes in a variety of flavors like Bomb-A-Licious Buffalo, Dillionaire Fresh Dill Hummus, and Sweet & Spicy Black Bean, has caught the eye of many business investors. In October, t he startup won $15,000 at Blackstone’s first LaunchPad Demo Day in New York City, where Wolfe placed second out of 20 competitors.

Wolfe said he first met with Publix in April to talk about selling his hummus, but after the company turned down that idea, Wolfe quickly worked on another product — the salad dressing.

“I think they liked the dressing because it’s oil-free and dairy-free. Publix loves it, and it’s a really good take on hummus,” he says.

This story appeared in an Aug. 13, 2015, edition of the Orlando Business Journal online. It has been slightly edited in accordance with AP and alumni association style guidelines. See original article. 

UCF Alumni Honors 2015 Jefferson Award Recipients

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Three of this year’s UCF Jefferson Award recipients included (left to right) Mark Blue, ’89, ’08, ’10, College Chapter Volunteer of the Year; Crystal Buit, ’06, Constituent Chapter Volunteer of the Year; and Matthew Ayala, ’11, Regional Club Volunteer of the Year.

On June 12, the UCF Jefferson Awards & Alumni Volunteer Reception celebrated its eighth year recognizing some of the UCF Alumni Association’s most active volunteers for their countless acts of generosity and numerous volunteer hours. Hosted by the UCF Community Volunteers Alumni Chapter, these awards focus on public service and the importance of giving back.

The event kickstarted the alumni association’s Chapter and Club Council Meeting weekend, during which alumni chapter and club volunteers from across the nation gathered to discuss plans for the upcoming year.

Todd Bowers, ’77, a graduate of the College of Business Administration, who serves on the college’s Dean’s Advisory Council, the UCF Athletics Association Board of Directors, the UCF Foundation Finance Committee and the UCF Inclusive Education Team, was the evening’s master of ceremonies. Anthony Jenkins, Ph.D., UCF’s senior associate vice president and dean of students, was also in attendance as a guest speaker for the festivities.

Congratulations to this year’s recipients:

Regional Chapter Volunteer of the Year—
Ivette Herald, ’04, Chicago UCF Alumni Chapter

Ivette has been chair of the Chicago UCF Alumni Chapter for the past four years. With her leadership, the chapter grew from 10 active members to nearly 50, and its Facebook page has increased to more than 400 followers.

“Our chapter’s mission is to create a home away from home for alumni, and I stress the importance of making those connections during every board meeting and through my actions,” she says. “It’s important that we make alumni feel welcome. I think that passion is what has helped our club evolve into a chapter in one year, and keeps alumni coming to our monthly events and watch parties.”

The other nominees included: Eric Braga, ’00, Space Coast UCF Alumni Chapter; Chris Brown, ’05, Tampa Bay UCF Alumni Chapter; Samantha Malone, ’04, Denver UCF Alumni Chapter; Thomas Marron, ’86, New York UCF Alumni Chapter; and Sara Singer, ’10, Southeast Florida UCF Alumni Chapter

Regional Club Volunteer of the Year—
Matthew Ayala, ’11, Southwest Florida UCF Alumni Club

Matthew just completed his third year as chair of the Southwest Florida UCF Alumni Club. Under his guidance, the club has seen a significant increase in its watch party attendance, as well as its Senior Sendoff event, after which other clubs now model their Senior Sendoffs.

“I look at this as a job,” he says. “Every day is another opportunity to enhance UCF’s brand, and I try to do something for the club each and every day.”

The other nominees included: Bakari Dowdell, ’14, Jacksonville UCF Alumni Club; and Becky Koziuk, ’03, Jacksonville UCF Alumni Club

Association Committee Volunteer of the Year—
Dan Ward, ’92, UCF Alumni Board of Directors/PR Committee

After serving a six-year term on the UCF Alumni Association Board of Directors, Dan returned this year to chair the public relations committee, developing strategies to increase awareness and relevance of the association and the Knights it serves.

“We’ve brought additional structure to the PR committee this year, and added a team of dedicated volunteers who give of their time and help us promote the association,” he says.

College Chapter Volunteer of the Year—
Mark Blue, ’89, ’08, ’10, UCF College of Engineering & Computer Science Alumni Chapter

Mark currently serves as vice chair of the UCF College of Engineering and Computer Science Alumni Chapter. Along with a fellow chapter member, he championed the college’s new Career Kickoff, which became a signature event for the chapter.

“I believe in direct engagement between students and alumni for the benefit of both,” he says. “As alumni, we can provide great insight, skills, training, guidance and contacts for the students. In return, the students infuse us with passion and energy for our university and our profession.”

The other nominees included: Tom Alexander, ’03, UCF Nicholson School of Communication Alumni Chapter; and Tiffany Carrion, ’08, UCF Rosen College of Hospitality Management Alumni Chapter

Constituent Chapter Volunteer of the Year—
Crystal Buit, ’06, UCF Community Volunteers Chapter

This past year, Crystal served as chair of the UCF Community Volunteers Chapter. Like other volunteer leaders, she says she wanted the year to be a success and had a passion for outreach and engagement, being sure to personally connect with as many alumni as she could at each event, letting them know she was thankful for their participation and welcomed their future involvement.

“I hope I have positively impacted the association by creating opportunities for alumni to reconnect with one another, while reminding those in the community of UCF’s tremendous and generous alumni presence and base,” Crystal says.

The other nominee was: Justina Oldehoff, ’09, UCF Young Alumni Chapter 

Student Volunteer of the Year—
Jill Dutmers, 4EVER KNIGHTS Ambassador

Jill has been a 4EVER Knights Ambassador for the past three years. During her junior year, she served as secretary of the 4EK officer board. She also chaired Knights of Legend, 4EK’s annual networking event for students and alumni. This past year, she served as the student alumni association’s president.

“As an ambassador, I’m only required to work 50 hours’ worth of events,” Jill says. “Yet, I attend everything — every meeting, every event, every social gathering — regardless of whether I need the hours. It’s not that I don’t have coursework or law school applications or family obligations waiting for me at home. It’s just that I want to be the kind of outstanding leader who inspires those who follow through my actions rather than my words.”

The other nominee was: Mackenzie Chase, 4EVER KNIGHTS Ambassador 

In addition, three alumni were honored with Shining Armor Awards, recognizing their chivalry to the 4EVER KNIGHTS program and the 4EVER KNIGHTS Ambassadors by donating their time and talent to help 4EK succeed.

Those recipients were:

Peter Cranis, ’84, ’88

Mike Griffin, ’84

Tiffany Payne, ’97

Congrats to all!

VIEW EVENT PHOTO GALLERY

College of Education Alumnus Named as a Finalist for Florida Teacher of the Year

By my65Orlando.com

A Longwood teacher who is revolutionizing the classroom has caught the eye of the Florida Department of Education.

Brian Furgione, ’11, has taught at Milwee Middle School for just four years, but he has already been recognized as Seminole County’s Teacher of the Year.  Now, he’s one of five finalists in a statewide competition.

“I’m shocked, I’m excited, I’m shaking. I don’t really know what to say,” said Furgione. “It means what we’re doing here at Milwee is being recognized.   It’s for Milwee, more than anything else.”

If Furgione is selected as Florida’s Teacher of the Year, he receives $10,000 and a trip to New York for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Theatre alumna reprises Off-Broadway role she originated at Orlando theatre

Michelle Knight, '02, poses in front of her Snow White billboard in Times Square.
Michelle Knight, ’02, poses in front of her Snow White billboard in Times Square.
Michelle Knight, ’02 | Performer

Michelle Knight, ’02, stars as Snow White in the Off-Broadway production of “DISENCHANTED!” — a not-for-the-kiddies musical comedy that’s anything but Grimm. Forget the princesses you think you know. Fairy tales will never be the same! The show runs for a limited engagement Nov. 26 through Jan. 25 at the Theatre at St. Clement’s in New York City.

Knight originated the role of Snow White in “DISENCHANTED!” in 2011 at the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, and reprised the role (for which she received a Daily Beast Best Actress award) at the Orlando Shakespeare Festival’s Goldman Theater, as well as the Peter Jay Sharp Theater and Don’t Tell Mama Cabaret Theater, both in New York City.

She’s performed on Broadway in “Jersey Boys,” as well as in the first national tour in Chicago and Las Vegas. Her other national tours include “Grease” and the 30th anniversary tour of “Annie.”

Knight is often a starring performer with the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, including leads in “My Fair Lady,” “Carousel,” and “Guys and Dolls.” She can also be seen in “Finding Nemo, The Musical” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and with the Voices of Liberty at Disney’s Epcot.

More Info

Visiting NYC during the holidays? Get tickets to see Michelle Knight in “DISENCHANTED!”

The Producer

Communication alumna calls shots for one of the world’s news leaders

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Victoria Moll-Ramirez, ’09 | Cross-Platform Associate Producer, CNN

By Julia Anderson, ‘14

Victoria Moll-Ramirez, ’09, says her bachelor’s degree in radio-television from UCF has meant everything to her in her career. Her best memories at UCF include hours spent in the Nicholson School of Communication’s Knightly Newsroom.

“Every meltdown, every slice of pizza and every soda I had in that newsroom is so fondly remembered,” she says. “The countless times we all looked at each other and asked, ‘Why are we doing this?!’ Totally worth it.”

Although it was challenging at the time, she thanks her experience in the RTV broadcast journalism track for her success.

Shortly after she graduated, Moll-Ramirez started working as an assignment editor at WKMG-Local 6 News Orlando, where she had previously interned. She left WKMG in 2011 after being the first UCF alumna chosen for the NBC News Associate Program in New York City. Out of more than 1,500 applicants she was one of seven chosen for the prestigious program.

In 2012, NBC News promoted her to bureau coordinator of its Miami office. At NBC, she helped generate content for all of their platforms, including NBCNews.com, “The Today Show,” “NBC Nightly News,” MSNBC and NBCLatino.com.

After an incredible three years at NBC News, she moved on to become a cross-platform associate producer at CNN, which is based out of Atlanta.

Moll-Ramirez answered some questions about her time at UCF, the difficulties and rewards of being in the news industry, and shared advice for students and alumni.

Q&A in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…

Q. Why did you choose to attend UCF?
A. It’s going to sound a little silly, but the reason I chose UCF is because it was the university that sent me the most promotional mail. One day I just thought to myself, “Well, if these people want me so bad, let me check this out.”

Q. How has your UCF degree helped you in your career?
A. My UCF degree has been essential in my career. All of my jobs have required a degree in journalism. Over time, I’ve also realized how great the RTV broadcast journalism program was. I’ve had colleagues who went to Columbia, Northwestern, USC, Berkeley, you name it. Not once have I ever felt like I fell behind.

Q. Favorite thing about your job?
A. No two days are ever the same — coming into work every day and not knowing what’s going to happen. Not realizing the moment you walk in through those doors, you may be a few moments away from informing the world about a certain historical event, good or bad, is invaluable.

Q. Most memorable experience on the job?
A. I’d have to say it was the 10th anniversary of September 11th. I was working for NBC at the time in New York City and got to be a part of the team that covered it. When the names of the fallen were being called and I looked at my colleagues, many of whom covered the actual attacks, with tears down their cheeks, it was so real. Seeing the fountains from high up and knowing that’s where so many lives were lost — the hurt was palpable.

Q. What piece of advice would you give to current UCF students, as well as fellow Knights?
A. To current students, UCF is becoming a bigger and bigger name. Don’t underestimate it. A degree is what you make of it. Not having a degree is a lot tougher than having one. Be proud, always. Oh, and INTERN! INTERN, INTERN, INTERN! It’s more important than most of your classes!

For alumni, let’s be friends! I love UCF for all the doors it opened for me. A strong alumni association makes a huge difference.

Now, for some fun questions. Moll-Ramirez shared some personal info to help us get to know her better:

Q. Do you have any special/hidden talents?
A. When in top cardio shape, I’m pretty great at jumping rope. Bizarre, I know. But I actually became obsessed with it while at UCF. They used to have a half-hour class at the recreation center and I started taking it. The rest is history.

Q. What do you do for fun?
A. I love trivia nights and playing kickball. Yes, kickball — don’t judge. I also listen to Pitbull and Romeo Santos (a Spanish language singer) way too much. Also, the regular stuff like hanging out with friends, traveling and watching the news.

Q. What’s the most generous or thoughtful gift you’ve ever received?
A. The most thoughtful gift I ever received was really more like a gesture. On my last day at NBC News, my colleagues threw a huge surprise party for me. My desk was decorated — with pictures of Sanjay Gupta and Wolf Blitzer included — there were balloons, they made posters with pictures of all of my favorite things, they ordered food, I got flowers and even a crown! It was like my Quinceañera all over again! I didn’t expect it and it was above and beyond anything I could’ve ever imagined.