UCF graduate Sara Parsons ’23 differed from most of her peers at the Friday ceremonies. A double major, she walked across the stage at Addition Financial Arena to receive her bachelor’s in mechanical engineering in the morning and will return to the arena to receive her bachelor’s in studio art in the evening.

Sara Parsons ’23 and her mother, Christine Parsons ’17 ’22MS.

The drive to earn two degrees is inspired by her mother, Christine Parsons ’17 ’22MS — who earned bachelor’s in science education and master’s in interdisciplinary studies from UCF — the support from her parents, and three older brothers and Parsons’ passion for education. As a student at Seminole High School, she participated in the International Baccalaureate program, described by the high school as “a demanding pre-university course of study that is designed for highly motivated secondary school students.”

Parsons majored in mechanical engineering and studio art because of her desire to create, and having an education in both would fully equip her with her goals. While the academic goal was ambitious, and other universities she spoke with advised against it due to the differences in coursework, UCF supported her, paying back the excess credit hours while getting the degrees.

“I really want to make things,” Parsons says. “I just like creating things, and I felt like if I only had one of them, then I would have less of an education for what I want to do, just in general for my own personal wants.”

During her time at UCF, Parsons’ education was fueled with tools, projects and programs to give her hands-on experience. The wood shop at the School of Arts and Visual Design’s sculpture studio contains a computer numerical control machine that cuts wood into various designs. This semester, Parsons used the machine to make a large-scale wooden bear designed to be a stylish, easy-to-assemble work that was also stable enough to sit on. On the engineering side, Parsons was part of a group that made an animatronic Knightro. In a project with fellow engineering graduates Rachel Christie ’23, Eric Ginsberg ’23, Neil Kalef ’23, Alexis Poppell ’23 and Ryan Strembicki ’23, and voiced by Jason Millhouse, the announcer of the Marching Knights, this version of Knightro has different poses and will respond to various words spoken to him. The eyes also can change into hearts, an idea from Parsons.

Both disciplines were interconnected for Parsons, approaching the same problem from different angles. The disciplines came together in the Advanced Design Lab (adlab) course launched by UCF and Universal Creative, where artists and engineers worked together in the same class to build a proposal to Universal that included a ride, ride system and show.

A wooden bear created by Parsons, who earned degrees in mechanical engineering and studio art.

“I would say they both helped with each other,” Parsons says. “Engineering helped me gain an understanding of the techniques behind the things that I would do in art, but also in so many of my art classes, I would see people doing these amazing projects that you would think this comes from such a mechanical mind.”

Perseverance Through Adversity

It was in the adlab course that Parsons experienced a life-altering challenge. What started as a sinus infection for a few weeks turned into a migraine and light sensitivity for one week, making computer work difficult. With her symptoms persistent, Parsons went to the hospital the day students went on spring break in 2020. While in the hospital she began to develop double vision. A CT scan showed she had a pseudotumor cerebri, which is a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid. They gave her a spinal tap, inserting a large needle into her spine to extract excess fluid. Doctors didn’t find anything wrong in the fluid, but an MRI discovered a blood clot in her brain. Parsons was prescribed blood thinners and additional medication after it was found the clot was keeping her spinal fluid from draining. However, the diuretic-like medication had strong side effects, such as affecting one’s critical thinking. The medication Parsons was on made classes difficult.

“The way they describe it, it’s called brain fog,” Parsons says. “I want to say I was looking back at my courses and I’m like, ‘I don’t even remember taking this class.’ I got through the class apparently, but the memory is very bad, and I feel like that’s a little bit of a shame because I love learning.”

The day after Parsons was released from the hospital, she started having symptoms of a herniated disk. The high amounts of cerebrospinal fluid caused her optic nerve to swell, which if untreated can cause blindness. Parsons was treated and other than a slightly larger blind spot than before, her vision is mostly intact.

Even in difficult times, Parsons’ drive led to success. She didn’t medically withdraw because she had nearly completed two of her four classes. Two other professors allowed her to retake the tests due to her health condition. While she had to retake the other two courses due to the medication’s side effects, she was able to pass the courses the next time she took them.

Parsons is healthy now and says the experience made her more resilient. When she was in the hospital, her relaxed demeanor helped keep her mother calm despite the concern she had for her daughter’s health.

“I guess it just in the end made me feel more confident in my own abilities, as if I can get through,” she says.

Parsons also made projects representative of her health struggles, such as this bust of a head partially swollen with flowers growing from it. Some angles show no indication of swelling, representing how hardship and pain is not always visible. The flowers represent the blood clot as the body’s natural defense mechanism from keeping an infection from spreading into the brain. Although it caused some suffering and danger, to Parsons it represents life and perseverance.

A Campus Impact

Since her health has improved, Parsons has found a way to make an impact outside the classroom as an executive function coach and receptionist with UCF’s Inclusive Education Services (IES) program. IES provides an inclusive, comprehensive, non-degree-seeking college experience to adults with intellectual disabilities. During the two-year experience, students discover and develop their passions and strengths, enhancing their ability to facilitate long-term, paid and fulfilling employment after graduation. Parsons created schedules for the students to help keep them on track with their tasks and worked on life skills with them, such as planning, organizing, task initiation and maintaining focus.

While it may have seemed to Parsons at times that she and the staff members weren’t doing much to help improve the students, as they tracked the students’ progress in the program, they saw how effective the skills were. Things that were a struggle for a student early in the program were not the case later.

“We tried to teach them how to develop a SMART goal format — specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, timebound — so really having a goal in your mind, deciding on it and then figuring out how to do it, making a plan for it and then executing it, and then if there is any struggle with that process you go back, check in on yourself and figure out where the struggles are happening so that you can improve it and achieve your goals,” Parsons says.

Parsons was inspired to work in the IES program after doing executive functioning coaching with UCF’s focused coaching program which is separate from IES. As she improved upon some of her skills, such as time management, she wanted to help others.

“Working with executive function coaches myself gave me an experience and helped me develop those skills and it made me want to help other people develop those skills,” Parsons says.

Limitless Future

Parsons’ graduation cap.

The coaching program was part of the services at UCF that helped Parsons during her time in school. As time went on, she participated in study groups and worked with students on various tasks. Engineering students also created Discord channels where they shared class notes, and student teachers assisted.

“It also helps just with the idea that you’re not in it alone,” Parsons says. “If there’s something you’re struggling with, someone else is also struggling with it.”

Parsons is interested in a career in animatronics due to the connectivity between her two majors. The field provides different ways to solve a similar problem, much like the education she received at UCF. However, whatever Parsons does, her time at the university shows that the possibilities are limitless.

“I just want to have the skills to do anything that I set my mind to,” she says.