In episode 26 — the 11th episode of season two of the UCF podcast, Knights Do That — Alex Cumming looks back on the first two seasons as his time as host comes to and end.
Alex Cumming: Well, the time has come. My final episode hosting Knights Do That as I end my time at UCF as an undergraduate student. I want to take this episode to share some of my favorite moments throughout my time as host and express what being host has meant to me. The podcast came about through my involvement as a UCF Social Media Ambassador, getting to work with the amazing people that manage the UCF social media accounts. When the notion of beginning a UCF podcast came about, I leapt at the opportunity knowing that I would get to talk with some incredible people in the UCF world. In my introductory episode, I said what excited me most about the show was hearing from people who have strong convictions and a story to tell. That’s what made me excited every time, a guest would come in studio — hearing what they’d made their life’s work and why it was important to them, UCF and the world. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the amazing people I work with, Knight Nation — and even those of you who are Knights by association — tuning in, and of course the amazing guests we’ve had on the show who represent everything that makes UCF great. Now let’s get into some of the moments that really stuck out to me this past year, hosting the Knights Do That podcast.
I’d like to begin with the first episode, my interview with President Cartwright. It was such an honor to get to speak with the president of the university and hear about his vision for the future of UCF, why opportunity thrives at UCF and how we are making the impossible possible.
Alexander Cartwright: When I say that, I mean, we’re going to do it the UCF way. We’re going to focus on what we value. We’re going to focus on our people, our students, our faculty, and we’re going to continue to move this institution forward and the research that it does and the scholarship that it does, the impact that it has on lives. We are going to be an institution that is exceptional in scholarship, but at the same time, we are going to be fully committed to providing the environment and opportunity our students need to excel. Every student that comes here deserves that. Whatever background, it doesn’t matter, they deserve to have an opportunity to excel. We’ll be committed to that. And if we commit to those things, I look at it and I’m like, you know, if someone can come from the Bahamas and certainly make it to where I’ve made it to —. I look at the potential we have here at UCF, and I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t move to that position, where we are already a place in this country that people are looking at. They know how much we’ve moved, they know how much we’ve done, in a short period of time. And I can tell you that a lot of people are looking and going what’s next for that place? Oh yeah. And we have so much potential. It’s now our job to just keep jumping to that next level. And we will I feel it, I know that we have the talent and the desire. We have such an innovative spirit here. People — I’ve said this before, about with COVID and other things — people just roll up the sleeves. Let’s get the job done. That is a huge advantage. There are not many institutions that have that attitude. We embrace that, we embrace what is possible, and we can really become the best metropolitan university in this country.
Alex Cumming: Moving onto my conversation with Kent Butler, I loved the way Kent spoke about the importance of having tough conversations to break boundaries, get out of your comfort zone and grow.
S. Kent Butler: A lot of people are fearful of the conversation because they think there’s going to go terribly wrong. But I found that each of these conversations actually come with really bright spots and it’s how they’re facilitated. They don’t become yelling matches, and that’s what people are fearful of. And they’re also fearful that they’re going to be seen as this ogre or that they’re seen as a racist or something along those lines. And actually what comes out of it is an understanding. And I think most people start to understand that. Because of someone’s life experiences and the way that they were brought up, they see the world this way. And I don’t go into any of my conversations trying to change people. That’s not my role. My role is to expose people. So how I live my life has always been about exposing people, and the hope therefore is for people to actually receive it and grow from it. So it goes back to that conceptual model again. Come out of your comfort zone, get into the fear of it all, learn something and then grow.
Alex Cumming: As we moved out of the peak of COVID, having Darin Edwards ’97 ’10MS ’11PhD on the show was surreal. The man who led the charge to create Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine and opened up the possibilities for the future of medicine. Helping the world come out of a worldwide pandemic comes with a lot of stress and it was great hearing how Darin managed it all.
Darin Edwards: One way that I’ve managed it is recognizing those areas that I need to focus on and areas that maybe don’t require my direct input and growing my team, developing my team, to cover those areas that maybe I don’t have to have all of the interaction, all of the focus on, that has helped. In addition to that, we’ve leveraged partnerships we’re partnered with the NIH on this effort and not only partnered with the NIH, but partnered with the top people at the NIH, talked to Barney Graham and his team at the VRC, the Vaccine Research Center, has really assisted and helped in developing this COVID vaccine. And having such key scientific minds, such amazing researchers engaged in this effort has helped with workload, has helped with stress. Because when you’re talking to the key scientists the top minds the world, and you’re coming to a path forward with them, you have confidence. And that confidence in our approach and our strategy. Although, there’s been a lot of stress along the way. At least we’ve had confidence throughout in the approach that we’ve taken.
Alex Cumming: I’ve always wanted to emphasize that it’s the people who make UCF such a special place, and athletics plays a large role in that. Getting to talk with Marc Daniels about his UCF memories and the moments with athletes that are ingrained in his mind was so special.
Marc Daniels: I did an interview recently with somebody who asked me, “What makes UCF such a unique place?” They’re asking about football. They, said, “What makes it such a unique place?” And I said, “Imagine if you are able to go to work every day and they encourage you to be as creative as you can be. Just try stuff. Don’t worry about failing. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else and just think out of the box as you can.” If you think about that’s what we become — different uniforms, we’re pretty active on social media, we’ll get under the skin of our rivals and opponents. We don’t have a history that you have to act a certain way. We can go and be the life of the party where someone else goes, “I want to hang out with those guys cause they’re having the most fun.” I think that’s one of the biggest advantages that we have is that we’re still writing our history while others are upholding a history. And that’s why I think this is the best time at UCF. There’s still so many amazing things that are out there.
Alex Cumming: Do you have a moment or a memory that sticks out to you?
Marc Daniels: Yeah. The first thing that sticks out to me, the Griffin twins and (Shaquille ’16 and) Shaquem Griffin ’16 and to see the impact that he had on families of teams that we played on the road. I was able to witness families bring children that have some real difficulties in life, not able to walk or other issues, that are going make their life a little bit more challenging. And to have him take the time, even though they may be wearing the colors of the team that he’s going to play in a few hours, and to sit down and look them in the eye and make them smile and make them feel like, you know what, you’re no different than me and if somebody else says you are different understand that you can strive to be something. And I got to watch both of those brothers realize the impact that they could have on people. And to see Shaquem sometimes bend down to talk to a child in a wheelchair or with braces and make them smile, that’s a lot more than the final score of a football game. And to see a mother in tears because they hadn’t seen their child’s smile, that’s powerful. That’s far more than, who won and what was the stat sheet today? And I’ll never forget seeing that multiple times watching him do that. I remember at the Peach Bowl, there was a media session that I was at that he was a part of and we came out of that and there was a family right there with a young daughter that she was in awe being able to meet him. So you don’t forget stuff like that.
Alex Cumming: Dr. Annette Khaled works in cancer research and Dr. Deborah Beidel works with veterans afflicted with PTSD, talking with them about the importance of human connection in medicine and breaking stigmas around reaching out for help is revealing the future of working in healthcare moving forward.
Annette Khaled: I think it’s important that as a researcher, it doesn’t matter what discipline you’re working in, whether it’s infectious disease or neuroscience, whatever field you’re in, to always connect with the people, right? You know that if you’re working in disease, (with) Alzheimer’s, connect with those. You’re working with infectious disease, connect with people (with) HIV, because that connection really brings your research home. It really helps you focus your research on things that are going to impact people, not just something that’s your own. Like you said, ego, right? It’s something that you’re doing to drive something that’s going to help the community. So I really love, not just for myself but also have my students connect with breast cancer survivors for that reason.
Deborah Beidel: I tell people we don’t need different treatments, we need to do treatment differently. So the idea is having people give up two or three weeks in order to get a lot better. And we talk about that also as trying to break the stigma. So both for active duty personnel, veterans, and also our first responders, who have always been in the role of being the helper, turning around and asking for help is really difficult. But if we can start to think about treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder in the same way that we think about physical therapy, then we have a chance of breaking the stigma.
Alex Cumming: UCF isn’t referred to a SpaceU in name alone. We walk the walk too. Planetary scientist at UCF Phil Metzger ’00MS’05PhD is teaching the next generation of aerospace engineers that will send a UCF into the cosmos.
Phil Metzger: The future is amazing. If I could look into the future and tell you what I see this is it. I see civilization reaching beyond planet Earth. So we’re no longer just doing exploration in space, we’re actually doing the economic activities of life beyond planet Earth, and that’s going to happen in this century. We’re already in the process of starting that and it’s accelerating. It’s really exciting to be a part of making that happen right now. This is the generation of graduates from UCF and from other schools. This is the generation that is going to make all that happen during their careers. Right now I understand UCF puts more graduates into aerospace engineering than any other university in the United States. So we’re going to continue pumping students into this, and those aerospace engineering students and business students and every other field is going to have a lot to work on in space.
Alex Cumming: One of my favorite ways that UCF impacts the community is through the UCF founded company, Limbitless. Limbitless Solutions provides prosthetic arms to children with limb differences, from designing the arms to the child’s liking to making the interchangeable so the arm grows alongside the child. Limbitless shows children at a young age, the power of UCF’s impact. That’s why speaking with the founder, Albert Manero ’12 ’14MS ’16PhD, about that impact was such a pleasure.
Albert Manero: For us, the moment that we get really excited by is when the child realizes that they’re taking the arm home. And there’s always this like little look where they look to their parents to make sure it’s real. And then they get this beaming smile. And when you watch that and you watch the family interactions, that makes all the rest of the development and the business part and the research part all worth it. And it is a rare opportunity to be able to see something from a research lab directly connect with your community. And here in Central Florida, that’s a gift you don’t always get that immediate feedback. And I think that for Limbitless being able to work directly with our community and see that translation has been the most rewarding part of the whole program. And we hope that it continues to inspire others, that a next generation of innovators, to be able to continue to refine what we do. If they’re in our program or to take that level of passion and creativity into any of their fields to make the world more accessible, more inclusive, and be able to just make it a lot of fun. As part of UCF, all of us here get that opportunity to be able to leave your mark. And if we do it well, and we do it together, we’re going to really transform our community to where it could be to be more inclusive and more accessible. And I think that UCF is just so well positioned to be able to have that continued growth and its impact that I’m really excited to be here and be a part of it.
Alex Cumming: A reoccurring theme from guests has been the importance of communication to improve all types of relationships. When I sat down with Dr. Sejal Barden with UCF’s Marriage and Family Research Institute, I got an in-depth breakdown on actionable steps to improve communication that gave me a new perspective on how I communicate and show up to the relationships I’ve built in my life.
Sejal Barden: I think I really could not emphasize enough the importance of communication. It’s something intuitive. Like we all know of course, sit down and talk to your partner. And in today’s day of social media technology, always being plugged into our phones, hearing an email beep at us every 20 seconds and feeling like we need to respond. I wasn’t a wife or a mother 20 years ago, I’d like to say that there was a simplicity then that we have lost now because of technology and social media. And it sounds simple. It sounds old school, but I think that if couples could just spend X-amount of minutes to together, five, 10 minutes together, really being unplugged, one, personally, it would feel really fulfilling. And I think this really applies to our younger couples. I think older couples might experience this too, but when I think of stats of social media use and just like screen time that your iPhone will show you and people are on it for six, eight, maybe 10 hours a day. It’s so much of our life is going into something that doesn’t really fill our buckets in a positive way, in the moment there’s some instant gratification, of course. But long term, it’s not really helping grow us as people or in our relationships. I would challenge any couple to do a 21-30 day challenge and say, can we commit to 10 minutes a day without phones, without technology and just have a conversation and whatever comes up in that conversation being open to it and to reassess in 30 days to say, do we feel more connected? Are we happier in our relationship? Did we come up with a goal to do together? Did we do something positive in that time? I would be really surprised if couples didn’t feel like 10 minutes a day unplugged was significantly beneficial to their livelihoods. Couples typically wait way too long to seek therapy. They wait much longer than individuals do because of course you need both people in the relationship to relatively agree to engage in therapy. And so by the time I see my couples, sometimes they’re not saying hello to one another. They’ve been sleeping in separate bedrooms for months on end. There’s really no semblance of who they used to be or what they used to have. And so these conversations that we’re having today is not where I’m starting with those couples. So I think it’s really taking an inventory and assessment of where are we today? And what’s the first next step?
Alex Cumming: There’s an old saying of be the change you want to see in the world. And that idea of improving yourself to improve the world was reinforced through my conversation with Michelle Gilland her belief of values guiding goals.
Michele Gill: So our beliefs about what the world is, what’s important to us, what we value, that will shape what kind of habits we want to choose. And what we find with New Year’s resolutions if you pick something that’s not really part of your belief system that you haven’t somehow shifted your identity to adopt, those habits will tend to fade over time. So what the habit researchers are saying, it has to be an identity shift, has to be a change of those implicit beliefs about what you value and what’s important to you in the world and who you hang out with. If you start with your values, what’s really important to you, then you can think about goals. So don’t start with goals, start with values. What do I care about? Look at your life now and think about how you can take small steps towards becoming the kind of person you want to be.
Alex Cumming: Though I’ll soon be leaving UCF, it’s great to know that people who are shaping UCF’s athletic identity going forward have a clear vision for the future and that they care deeply for the student athletes who will become the faces of UCF. As a UCF alum, I can’t wait to see what’s next under Athletics Director Terry Mohajir‘s leadership.
Terry Mohajir: So what drives me every single day is watching young people. I love watching them score touchdowns and home runs and baskets and three points, but the most important thing for me is watching them get a degree and walk across that stage and get a job and buying their first house. Sending me a picture of their office chair. Those are the most important things that I, cause I know where some of our kids — our students, I call them kids — but some of our students come from is their families didn’t have two nickels to rub together, dirt floors. Some of the poorest parts of this country, I’ve seen young people come out, because of their football scholarship, they’ve been able to change their family’s circumstances, life. Because remember at the end of the day, locker rooms are the greatest rooms to be a part of because you have kids from the country, you have kids from urban areas. You’ve got kids that are very wealthy. You’ve got kids that are dirt poor. But at the end of the day, the only discrimination that goes on in a locker room is what? The ones that can’t perform. Doesn’t matter what you look like, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. Can you help me get better? So everybody’s on equal playing field. We’re the only athletic department in the country that will guarantee you a job once you graduate or grad school placement. So I’m very proud we’ve had 100% job placement or grad school placement for almost a decade. And we’re the only athletic department in America that, that will promise that, these are really good career opportunities. So that’s what drives me every day.
Alex Cumming: Highlighting one of my final guests, Professor and Orchestras Conductor Chung Park. Chung’s conviction that the arts aren’t a side dish in life, they’re a main course, hits home with me as an actor and the emphasis on the importance of finding like-minded people to share life’s art with is above all.
Chung Park: So many of the coping mechanisms that we’ve had for hundreds of years, these institutions are going away. Church attendance is down and I don’t know anybody who goes to the Moose Club or the Elks Club or anything like that. I’m sure they exist, and I wish them well. So there’s all of these kinds of venues for people to get together are going away and we’re being split apart and staring into our tiny little phones. And for a lot of these young people, the arts, being in theater and doing these programs or doing a play, they get to do something that’s super, super intense together. And then at the end of that run, they’re full of sweat and they’re crying and all this stuff and they’re just thinking, “Man, we did something really amazing. I pushed myself way beyond what I thought I was capable of and you know what? I succeeded.” And that is a thing that maybe you can get it on the football field? But I mean, not everybody’s cut out to play football. I certainly wasn’t, I’m five, five and 135 pounds soaking wet. This provides an avenue for people who, maybe, are not into athletics or whatever it is. Maybe don’t have a church for those people, music, that classroom, being with other students who share a passion, it’s a lifeline.
Alex Cumming: So what’s some advice that you would give to somebody who wants to do what you do?
Chung Park: There are two things. No.1 is you want to be as good as possible at your craft because the one thing that really cripples artists, and I’m sure that you’ve dealt with this, I’ve dealt with this. And I know that even people at the very highest level, all of the great composers, all of the great performers they’ve all dealt with this self-doubt. There is nothing more, corrosive than a lack of confidence. So you want to be as good at your craft as possible. You want it to be bulletproof. You want to prepare for things with the idea that you are going to succeed. That is the first step and then the second step is, we were talking about this earlier. If you understand the power of networking and how important it is for you to know the right people, then you will always be nice to pretty much everybody that you run into because it just takes one person saying, “Hey, this guy’s a jerk.” And even if you’re not, because I think most people are generally not. We all have our human frailties, but I think we’re all pretty decent people. But be nice, have manners, do things that ingratiate yourself. And for a long time I thought if I’m good, then my work will speak for itself and then I realized that’s a little bit of a my way or the highway kind of attitude. And for a while now I’ve been thinking, instead of trying to convince people, why don’t you charm them? Doesn’t always work and you know, I’m a work in progress but I’m trying. And I tell my students this all the time that your network is your single most important asset after your knowledge base. At the end of the day, I hope that people see that there’s a universality to what we do as actors and musicians. That it’s not a side dish. It’s an extension and an expression of who we are and what makes us human and that it is not some kind of specialized thing that is only done by professionals. What I tell my students is, because we have a ton of non-majors in the orchestra and I love them, they’re great. They’re super enthusiastic and some of them play well enough to threaten some of the majors’ egos a little bit. Let’s just say we’ve got a really great cohort of non-majors in this orchestra. And I tell them, “OK, you’re going to go off and you’re going to be a rocket scientist at NASA, that’s awesome, but I hope that on Friday nights you’ll get together and play fiddle tunes with your buddies. I hope that when you have children that you’ll play a lullaby for them and keep this live music going this ability to reach people by creating something with your own two hands. I hope you’ll keep this going.” That’s just one of, it’s one of my little dreams.
And this is just to the students at UCF. I love you all. You inspire me, get me out of bed every day. You drive me to be a better teacher and a person every day. And I dedicate my life to making your lives better. Thank you for being there. If the students weren’t here, I wouldn’t have a reason to be here. And so, you guys give my life purpose. So, thank you for that.
Alex Cumming: I’d like to close my time as host with this, my time at UCF has meant so much to me and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The people have made my time here so special. And that was always my goal for the podcast, showcasing the amazing people that are the backbone of UCF. — the university for the future. I’m deeply thankful for all the opportunities I’ve been given at UCF and the doors that have been opened for me.
I’ll always value the time I spent here and hope to go into the future being an ideal representative of the person UCF helped me become. While I may not be the host of this podcast anymore, I know I’m leaving you in good hands. And this podcast will continue to spotlight incredible faculty, staff, alumni and students at UCF who continue to change the world. I hope you’ll stick around for the next season of Knights Do That where the team will continue these impactful conversations.
In the meantime, you can find me on Instagram @ Alex.Cumming, on Twitter @AlexCumming98 and on my personal website AlexJCumming.com. Again, I’d like to say thank you to the amazing people who made this podcast possible in UCF Communications and Marketing, to the wonderful professors and friends I’ve known here and to you, the listeners and Knight Nation for tuning in and spending time with the guests and myself. Go Knights, Charge On.