Dean’s Sendoff Surprise

By Jenna Marina

ORLANDO, Fla. (April 20, 2017) – As the first member of her family born in America, Melonie Sexton ’07 was a first generation student at UCF when she received an email from Dean Alvin Wang about participating in a research project.

Before she graduated, Wang encouraged her to attend graduate school and continued to be her mentor, even when she moved to Tennessee to pursue a doctoral psychology program at Vanderbilt University.

Sexton, who now teaches at Valencia College, said over the last decade Wang has become more than a mentor to her. She considers him a friend.

So when she heard that the Burnett Honors College was honoring Wang’s service to the university with an endowed scholarship in his name, she knew immediately she wanted to contribute to it.

“He’s the first person outside of my family to tell me that I could actually do anything with my life. Your parents are supposed to say, ‘Yeah you’re going to be a doctor, a lawyer.’ But hearing it from a dean was the push I needed,” she said. “He deserves having a scholarship in his name. I think that’s what he embodies. It makes perfect sense to me.”

Wang announced in fall 2016 that he would be stepping down as dean by August 2017 to focus his time in the classroom as a psychology professor. At the time, the Burnett Honors College staff collaborated on the idea of a proper parting gift.

At Wednesday’s celebration of his tenure, the Burnett Honors College surprised him with the Alvin Y. Wang Endowed Scholarship, which has grown to nearly $38,000 in commitments and will support undergraduate research candidates in the honors college.

Of the 74 donors who contributed, 31 are alumni.

“This has been a great surprise. Thank you for making a gift like this to our students possible,” Wang said. “I always ask myself this question – how did someone like me, who aspired to become faculty and a professor, end up becoming a dean? The reason why I was able to stay in an administrative role for 16 years and enjoy it all the time was because of the people I was able to work with. It begins with my wonderful staff. It certainly includes the students. Meeting the talented, the interesting, the inquisitive student at Honors makes my day. It’s a very enriching, positive experience that I would never want to replace.”

Wang became a member of UCF’s faculty in 1987 and later joined the Burnett Honors College in fall 2001 as an associate dean. He served as interim dean for one year in 2005 before officially being named to the position in fall 2006.

Over the last 12 years under his leadership, the Burnett Honors College has flourished. In that time, 42 students have received national awards, including one Rhodes Scholar and 35 Fulbright Scholars.

In fall 2016, 289 National Merit Scholars were enrolled in the honors college, marking a university record and the second-most among Florida state universities that year.

Wang implemented the Burnett Honors College Medical Scholars Program, which reserves a spot for undergraduates in UCF’s College of Medicine provided that the students meet all the eligibility and performance criteria included in the program.

To enhance learning for honors students, he initiated international study abroad programs, developed service-learning opportunities and led highly successful philanthropic efforts to support new programs. In fact, three service learning trips to Nicaragua, South Africa and Mexico are slated for later this spring.

“I think Alvin would agree that the most important measures of success are the enriched academic experiences and support given to our nearly 5,500 university honors and honors in the majors student that have graduated while he’s been dean. Their dreams and accomplishments have been shaped in part by their time here at the honors college,” said Martin Dupuis, associate dean of the Burnett Honors College. “He supports everyone to excel at what they do. He established a very high professional standard by example, and those of us who have worked with him are better for it.”

Perhaps the most telling sign of his influence are those students, like Sexton, who have a pursued a path as educators themselves, following in his footsteps. Sexton said the biggest lesson she learned from him was to pay it forward.

“Be a role model and pay it forward. That’s what I try to live by,” she said. “If just one of my students said ‘Dr. Sexton said I can do it, and so I can,’ then I feel like I’ve truly paid it forward.”

Contributions are still being accepted for the Alvin Y. Wang Endowed Scholarship. Visit www.ucffoundation.org/alvinwang

Knight’s Legacy Lives On Through Scholarships

By Jenna Marina

ORLANDO, Fla. (April 6, 2017) – Before her death, Kailyn Jones was on the path to becoming a second-generation UCF alumna. She wanted to help people, especially children, as a physical therapist someday.

Although her own dream will tragically remain unrealized, two other students will have help achieving theirs thanks to a scholarship established in Jones’ name.

“Kailyn was such a good person. She loved to do good. I think she would be absolutely honored to do this for someone else,” said Ricardo San Jose, Kailyn’s uncle, a UCF alumnus and a current student in UCF’s family nurse practitioner program. “She saved a couple lives with her organ donation. Her heart is still beating in another right now.”

A scholarship was set up in memory of Kailyn Jones, a student at UCF who died in a car accident in June 2016.

Jones was killed in a car accident on Jun. 12, 2016 — the same date as the Pulse nightclub shooting. She was on her way home from babysitting family members at her grandparents’ house when another car drove into on-coming traffic.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, the driver hit a concrete barrier near a traffic circle at Maitland Summit Boulevard and Pembrook Drive, flipped and landed on top of Jones’ Honda Civic, records show.

San Jose, who works as an emergency room nurse, awoke early the next morning to find at least a dozen missed calls from his sister Lillian San Jose, Kailyn’s stepmother.

San Jose’s partner, Chris Blackwell, who is an associate professor at UCF, had known Kailyn for seven years and was as heartbroken as the rest of her family.

“I’ve worked in the ER, trauma, I’ve seen everything. But when it happens to you, there’s nothing that can prepare you for that,” he said. “It’s this instant sense of loss.”

At her funeral everyone wore purple for lupus awareness, a condition she was diagnosed with. Person after person spoke about Jones’ impact on their life and what a light she was to them. Blackwell felt compelled to do something.

When it was mentioned in her eulogy that she was going to join fellow family members as an alumna of UCF, Blackwell said the idea to do a scholarship clicked for him. He made a $1,000 donation and his family’s foundation, the Gary L. Blackwell Family Foundation, also made a $1,000 donation. These funds were used to support two student scholarships during the spring semester.

“I thought it would be a nice honor for her family to create a scholarship. Not only because it’s their alma mater, but maybe it would give them some comfort to see that somebody is pursing the same steps that their daughter would have pursued, and will have a somewhat easier way to do that,” Blackwell said.

On April 4, Jessica Recio, a nursing student who was awarded one of the scholarships, met Jones’ parents at the College of Nursing’s annual scholarship luncheon where students are invited to meet their donors for the first time. Blackwell and San Jose felt it was appropriate for Jones’ parents to attend in their place.

Kailyn Jones’ family members, Maurice Jones (purple shirt) and Lillian San Jose (black and white dress), met one of the scholarship recipients, Jessica Recio (right of San Jose).

Recio is a part-time graduate student in the middle of her second semester in UCF’s family nurse practitioner program. She has worked full time as a nurse at Orlando Regional Medical Center for the last year. She hopes to pursue a career in pediatrics after she graduates in 2019.

Recio said when she first applied for the scholarship, she wasn’t aware of the meaning behind it but has learned more about Jones over the last few months.

“It makes me sad but at the same time I’m really honored. I hope that I can make their family happy and proud,” Recio said. “I still have student loans from getting my nursing degree in the first place, so I am grateful to have help with this degree.”

Cami Osier, a physical therapy student and the other scholarship recipient, earned her bachelor’s degree in sports and exercise science as a Burnett Honors Student in 2015. She is currently pursuing a doctorate at UCF and hopes to one day become a pediatric physical therapist, just like Jones.

Jones will be one of the 18 students whose lives will be honored on April 11 at the Eternal Knights Memorial Service, an annual day of remembrance for the UCF community, family and friends for the lives of those lost in the past 12 months.

San Jose and Blackwell both said that Jones was a connector for their family and her friends, and they acknowledged she is still finding ways to do that, even after her death.

“She could walk into a room and just brighten everyone’s life. Full of humor, could make the grumpiest person laugh,” her uncle said. “It’s still difficult knowing that she’s gone. And it always will be I think. I think our family is dealing with it in healthy ways, and she would be proud of us.”

 

To learn more about supporting student scholarships at UCF, please visit ucffoundation.org.

From First Generation To Family Tradition

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By Jenna Marina

ORLANDO, Fla. (Dec. 8, 2016) – As a UCF Alumni board member, season ticket holder, Oviedo resident and occasional guest lecturer, Ryan Vescio ’02 visits UCF’s campus more than most. And when the assistant state attorney returns, his three children are frequently in tow.

Ella, 10, Sophia, 9, and Owen, 5, are big fans of tailgating. They debate the merits of their favorite basketball players. They recently got their wish granted to eat at Knightro’s with their dad. They periodically exchange hellos with President John C. Hitt and his wife, Martha, who know them by name thanks to Owen’s habit of running into their CFE Arena suite when he was 2.

To Ella, Sophia and Owen, the idea of college is nothing out of the ordinary – almost an expected path they will one day follow. The same cannot be said for Vescio, a first-generation college student.

“We never talked about college in my house. For my parents, it wasn’t a reality. You pick a job and you go and do your thing,” he said. “It’s incredible to watch that transition of how much one generation can really change the future of a family.”

The son of a hairdresser and auto mechanic, Vescio grew up in Melbourne in a double wide trailer on the grounds of an elementary school. His father was diagnosed with renal disease when Vescio was 10. The oldest of his siblings, he learned to grow up quickly.

He aspired to be a journalist, and thanks to a persistent teacher, he was granted access to cover his first NASA space shuttle launch at the age of 14 for a middle and high school newswire service he helped start. The news story he wrote landed on the front page of Florida Today’s Sunday edition, above the fold.

With the help of Florida Bright Futures Scholarship and Pell Grants, he made his dream of attending college a reality.

After a brief stint studying journalism at the University of South Carolina, he transferred to UCF to be closer to his ailing father. He also switched gears and took an interest in political science and law.

“I think about if I wasn’t as persistent as I was, if I didn’t want better, if I didn’t have the help of other people, I would have never had the experiences that I’ve been able to have,” he said. “Our university is a little different than the others around us, and I think that that’s nothing but positive. It’s exciting to watch traditions being built, but it’s equally as exciting to not have traditions hold us back. We can do anything, we can be anywhere, we can influence anything.”

He threw himself into college life, and his influence is still part of daily activity at UCF today. He was involved in the plans that led to the Recreation and Wellness Center being built. He also was there the day they came up with the idea to rope off the Pegasus on the floor of the Student Union.

“We never thought it would last,” he said with a laugh. “I get a kick around graduation when I see on social media the big deal about taking a graduation picture with the Pegasus. It really blows my mind.”

Vescio graduated with his bachelor’s in political science one year before his father passed away and says one of his proudest life moments is knowing that his father witnessed his son’s graduation day. He went on to law school at Nova Southeastern and is now director of modernization and assistant state attorney, Office of the State Attorney, 9th Judicial Circuit.

Vescio believes in his public service role and is fueled by fighting for the truth. Most of his work entails homicide and major crime cases. He believes it is an honor to serve as a voice for people who have suffered.

His life has come full circle now as a donor, supporting UCF Athletics, UCF Alumni and first-generation students.

“Being a Knight has given me the opportunity to go out and make a positive impact on our community,” he said. “The only limitation for Knights is our own self reservation.

Why I Give Back, by Ryan Vescio:

We owe it to future students to pay it forward and help them. To me, that’s everything from being involved on the alumni board, to showing up to events, to buying football tickets, to donating money that I have. Although I can’t write a $1 million check today, I know that my donation helps to fund a scholarship. To fund a program to go out and find students. It’s so important to be involved and engaged because there are so many high school students out there right now who think of college as this thing, but they can’t conceptualize it because it’s not a reality in their family or in their neighborhood or environment. That to me is the student that comes here and works even harder because it means so much to them. That’s the student who leaves here and becomes the research scientist, the filmmaker, the lawyer.

One in four students at UCF are the first in their family to attend college. To support first-generation students like Ryan Vescio, click here.

Salute to Steven Sotloff

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Adam Manno, the first scholarship recipient of the The Steven Sotloff Memorial Endowed Fund

By Jenna Marina

ORLANDO, Fla. (Oct. 20, 2016) – Shirley and Art Sotloff believe that their son, Steven, found his true calling while he was a student at UCF from 2002-04.

It’s that connection that prompted them to help create a scholarship in his name when Steven was killed after being taken hostage as a freelance journalist by terrorist group ISIS in 2014.

Recently, the Sotloffs visited campus to commemorate the first awarded scholarship from The Steven Sotloff Memorial Endowed Fund to senior Adam Manno.

“Knowing that our son’s name lives on, and that the endowment will touch the lives of students with similar interests as his own, truly touches our entire family,” Shirley said.

Manno is expected to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in political science. He was born in the Dominican Republic but attended high school in South Florida, where he got his first taste of journalism while working for his school newspaper.

He chose UCF because it encompassed everything he was looking for: a big school in an interesting and vibrant city, a well-renowned journalism department and a financial aid offer “thanks to UCF’s vision of education for all.”

“That’s one thing I really love about the school – it makes sure everyone who wants an education can get one,” he said. “It’s been very good to me.”

Manno was a sophomore at the time of Sotloff’s tragic death. He attended the vigil that was held on campus a day after the news broke worldwide. Manno said it both saddened and mobilized him.

“I just want to write and shed light on the stories that deserve to be told,” he said. “Like Steven did.”

Before Steven died, he managed to smuggle out a letter to his parents. They said that he wrote of his desire to give back.

After his death, the Sotloffs helped start the fund, which provides scholarship support to UCF students majoring in journalism as well as funding for symposia, lectures and other programming to advance journalism and journalism education.

Manno was honored to be chosen as the first recipient and understands the significance it carries.

“This is a scholarship directly tied to someone’s sacrifice for my profession. He was a former UCF student out there pursuing his life’s work. That’s all he was doing, and that’s what led to his death. It means more to me than just the money,” Manno said. “It means that I have to work hard to prove myself worthy of it. It’s an incentive that comes with a big responsibility.”

The fund still has room for growth. The Nicholson family, benefactors of the Nicholson School of Communication, pledged to match every dollar given up to $25,000.

Sonja and Tony Nicholson have spent time getting to know the Sotloffs and didn’t hesitate to extend their heartfelt support.

“They want their son’s name to live on. We felt that was a very small gesture on our part. We can’t ease that pain for them, but we can help carry his name on,” she said. “We just feel like [giving back is] so important because it touches so many lives, and we care about the students.”

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Art (left) and Shirley (middle) Sotloff along with College of Sciences Dean Michael D. Johnson

Those interested in donating can do so by visiting: https://www.ucffoundation.org/sotloff.

While on campus, the Sotloffs told Steven’s story to a room of College of Sciences scholarship recipients and their donors. There were some tears and a nod to Steven’s presence, who they believed was looking down with gratitude.

“The years he spent here, he really enjoyed, especially the rugby team. That was his passion and his love,” Art said.

As the Sotloffs said their goodbyes, Shirley looked back and said quietly, “our hearts are here.”

#ThankADonor: Bonded By Chemistry

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By Jenna Marina

ORLANDO, Fla. (Oct. 13, 2016) – Fate, and a dash of chemistry, brought together two-time alumna Cynthia McCurry and current College of Sciences student Lauren Gandy.

McCurry has supported a scholarship for the College of Sciences since 2001. Students of various science majors have received the scholarship over the years, but until this fall, it had been awarded just once to a chemistry major.

So McCurry’s day was made when she found out Gandy, this year’s George and Geraldine McCurry Endowed Scholarship recipient, shared her interest in chemistry.

“I’m just so glad that there are students coming out of the school who are making a difference,” McCurry said. “I’m especially pleased that we are turning out sciences majors who are women.”

McCurry graduated in 1980 with her bachelor’s degree in chemistry before earning her master’s in industrial chemistry two years later.

Gandy is a double major in forensic biochemistry and French. She is also pursuing two minors in chemistry and biomedical sciences. She decided to attend UCF because of its forensic science program and plans on furthering her education in a biochemical doctoral program.

One day, she would like to work within a chemical preparedness center to support safety from chemical attacks for the Department of Defense and the military.

The two talked about this and more during their first meeting in an event organized by the College of Sciences that paired donors with their recipients.

“I was fortunate to receive a scholarship last year as well but I didn’t get a chance to meet the donor. I think this year has been changed in so many ways because I’ve been able to meet her and see that chemists are supporting chemists. Engineers are supporting engineers. Just continuing that legacy,” Gandy said. “It’s so wonderful knowing there are people out there who I can look up to and who are supporting students like me.”

McCurry and her siblings set up the George and Geraldine McCurry Endowed Scholarship in honor of their parents, who she said always pushed their children to invest their time in education. All three of the McCurry children received degrees from UCF.

“We never thought of not going to school,” McCurry said. “We wanted to do the scholarship in their name. They were so happy that UCF was built here in Orlando and that we were able to attend. I try to support the school the best that I can.”

It took McCurry and Gandy less than two hours and one shared meal to form an emotional connection. As they neared the end of their conversation, they both started to tear up.

“I’m just so honored that I was able to help you in some small way,” McCurry told Gandy.

Gandy paused for a moment and replied, heartfelt: “Words can’t really express it.”