• A Crowning Achievement


    As the confetti floated through the air and mingled with the cheers ringing from the audience, Ebony Mitchell ’19 walked to the front of the Robinson Center stage in Little Rock. A crown glittered atop her head and a satin sash draped over her shoulder.

    Mitchell had just been crowned as the 84th Miss Arkansas and was understandably savoring the moment.

    “It was the most indescribable feeling,” Mitchell said. “I’ve watched the Miss Arkansas pageant since I was five years old. I’ve dreamed of having my own crowning moment. And when they called my name, it was just a mix of emotions. I was so thankful and grateful but also proud of the work I had put in to make it to that point. Plus, I was just so excited about the year to come.”

    Mitchell’s journey to the Miss Arkansas summit began as a young girl in Harrison, Arkansas. She entered a local pageant and delighted in dressing up and performing on stage. But it was later that year after meeting Eudora Mosby ’04, then the reigning Miss Arkansas and just the second African American woman to wear the crown, that Mitchell really began to dream big.

    “I enjoyed that first pageant. Then Miss Arkansas came to my school,” Mitchell said. “I had never seen someone who looks like me in a position like that. I knew who she was but I didn’t realize how much of an impact she would have on me until I saw her in person. It was like a light switch went on in my head. I knew I wanted to be Miss Arkansas.”

    She continued to participate in pageants throughout her childhood but, as a teenager, her journey changed course. She put her pageant pursuits on hold to focus on cheerleading and sports, in hopes of earning a college scholarship. That focus paid off when she earned a cheerleading scholarship to attend UCA. 

    But seeing a fellow Arkansan, Savvy Shields, capture the Miss America title in 2017 reminded her just how much she missed the pageant stage and reignited her dream to be named Miss Arkansas.

    With her ambition rekindled, Mitchell decided to enter the Miss UCA competition and captured the crown her senior year. In a college career that included being named captain of the UCA cheerleading team and earning a degree in marketing, serving as Miss UCA was unquestionably a highlight.

    “I love UCA and I loved my time as Miss UCA,” Mitchell said. “They have the best support system for their queen. They almost treat you like you’re Miss Arkansas. Plus, President Davis and his wife Jenny are both so supportive. I would be Miss UCA every year if I could.”

    Success in the 2019 Miss UCA event earned her a spot on the statewide stage for the third consecutive year. She finished in the Top 15 that year, her first time as a semi-finalist. There was no competition in 2020 but she earned first runner-up honors in 2021 before ascending to the top spot in 2022.

    A tale of two queens

    Mitchell’s year as Miss Arkansas will be a busy one. She’ll represent the state during a variety of events and activities. And there will be school visits and meetings with state officials, where she’ll promote her personal platform, A Responsible Digital You, which aims to teach children about online safety.

    “I really want to spread awareness about online and digital safety throughout the state,” Mitchell said. “I first got onto Facebook when I was in seventh grade and I was posting things like my phone number and my address. I was young and just didn’t understand how social media worked. My goal is to talk to kids of all ages and let them know how to be safe when they’re online.”

    Being Miss Arkansas has been a dream. It’s been a long journey to get here but an incredible one.

    – Ebony Mitchell

    Not long after being crowned, Mitchell got a congratulatory message from Mosby (now Eudora Evans), herself a 2004 UCA alumna. The two met for lunch, where Miss Arkansas 2005 gifted Miss Arkansas 2022 a pair of designer shoes to wear during the Miss America competition.

    “I had not talked to or seen Eudora since 2005, when I was nine, and spending time with her after so many years was incredible,” Mitchell said. “She was just as amazing as I remembered. She was an inspiration to me and I hope that I’m able to have that same type of impact on kids today.”

    While earning the title of Miss Arkansas was the culmination of a long-held dream, it’s also another step towards her ultimate aspiration: being chosen Miss America 2023. Looking ahead to the national competition brings back many of the same emotions she felt on that Little Rock stage this past summer.

    “Being Miss Arkansas has been a dream. It’s been a long journey to get here but an incredible one,” Mitchell said. “At times, I really can’t believe I’m going to compete in Miss America. I’m excited about the opportunity, though, and I’m going to try my hardest to bring the Miss America crown back to Arkansas.”

    Originally published in the Fall 2022 edition of UCA Magazine.

  • Building a Better Robot


    Twelve hours. 

    That’s how long it took to undo almost two semesters worth of work.

    When a pair of student teams from the University of Central Arkansas traveled to compete at the National Robotics Challenge in Marion, Ohio, one of the teams unpacked their bags after the 12-hour road trip only to find disaster staring them in the face.

    “On the way to Ohio, we traveled in a 15-passenger van and our robot was in the back of it,” said Corbin Humphrey ’22. “When we got there, we saw that one of the capacitors on one of the motors had broken. It was just dangling by a thread.”

    Thankfully, the team had brought a soldering kit and the tools needed to make repairs. As the teammate with the best soldering skills, Chris Geske stepped up to re-attach the capacitor to the motor. With that potential crisis averted, the team was ready to jump into the competition.

    The National Robotics Challenge began in 1986 with just two events each for high school and college competitors. In the more than 35 years since, the competition has grown to nearly 30 events for students at the university, high school and middle school levels.

    2022 marked the first year UCA students have participated in the competition, thanks in large part to a grant from the Arkansas Space Grant Consortium. The students also got support from William Slaton, director of the UCA engineering physics program and Carl Frederickson, chair of UCA’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.

    At the competition, which was held in April 2022, students from Lin Zhang’s Engineering Physics Senior Design class took part in the Autonomous Vehicle Challenge against teams from Kansas State University, the University of Texas-Arlington, the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. 

    “Nothing worked right out of the box. But that’s engineering. You can’t be discouraged. If things aren’t working, you have to spend the time to figure them out. And our students, they never gave up when things weren’t working. They just kept trying hard to solve the problem.”

    – Lin Zhang, assistant professor of physics and astronomy

    The two UCA teams spent the fall and spring semesters designing and building robots that could navigate an outdoor obstacle course in under five minutes with no human input. Both teams used a Raspberry Pi system as the “brains” of their vehicles but, beyond that, their approaches to navigation went in completely different directions.

    The Robot Ninja team was comprised of Humphrey, Timon Dresselhaus ’22 and Ole Kjorholt ’22, all engineering physics majors who graduated in May 2022, and Geske, who plans to graduate in December of 2022. They installed an Arduino system and relied on GPS to guide their vehicle. Using real-time satellite data, the GPS system would determine the position of the robot and then tell it which direction to move.

    Gavin Epperson ’22 and Daniel Ashcraft ’22, both computer engineering majors and also May 2022 graduates, made up the Donkey Car team. They used the open-source Donkey Car platform and an on-board camera for their robot. Essentially, the team would drive the vehicle around the course during practice laps using a remote control, modeling what they wanted it to do on its own. The robot would take nearly a thousand pictures per minute and then use that data during the competition to steer itself around the course.

    But even with months of work under their belts, both teams had to make adjustments right up until the last minute.

    “The day of the competition, we were still modifying our code,” Humphrey said. “Even when we were outside on the course, we were adjusting the robot and how it was performing. Timon was tweaking the design of the vehicle the entire day because it needed to be waterproof.”

    UCA students posting with their award from the National Robotics Competition
    Lin Zhang, assistant professor of physics and astronomy (left) with Christopher Geske, Timon Dresselhaus, Corbin Humphrey and Ole Kjorholt celebrating the 3rd place win. Humphrey is holding their autonomous racing robot: NinjaBot.

    “We were already a little nervous going in,” added Dresselhaus. “And then it started raining. Then it started snowing. Later in the day, it was extremely sunny. The weather was just crazy.”

    The parking lot at the competition, where the obstacle course was laid out, didn’t help matters either.

    “We were expecting at least a flat, straight surface but this thing had holes and bumps in it,” Dresselhaus said. “In one part, it almost looked like the ‘bot was climbing a mountain. That also contributed to us making some of the last-minute changes.”

    Thankfully, all those last-minute modifications paid off. The Robot Ninja team took home third place at the competition.

    “We didn’t think we would place that high, especially our first year going,” Dresselhaus said. “But it was cool to see the hard work pay off.”

    Even better, the Donkey Car robot built by Epperson and Ashcraft (and assisted at the event by fellow UCA student Austin Miller) captured top honors. They were also the only team to complete the entire obstacle course.

    While taking home first and third place from the nation’s oldest robotics competition was certainly a tremendous success, Zhang had a slightly different perspective.

    UCA student Austin Miller works on a robotic car
    Austin Miller works on the new generation of the autonomous racing robot for 2023’s challenge.

    “I didn’t think we’d get first and third place, so that was a nice surprise,” said Zhang, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy in UCA’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. “But I more valued the process the students went through. They were dedicated to this project and showed off their intelligence and their determination. 

    “Nothing worked right out of the box,” Zhang added, recalling the early days of the build process for both teams. “But that’s engineering. You can’t be discouraged. If things aren’t working, you have to spend the time to figure them out. And our students, they never gave up when things weren’t working. They just kept trying hard to solve the problem.”

    Humphrey agreed and offered his advice for future UCA robotics teams.

    “It’s going to be hard and you’re going to get frustrated,” Humphrey said. “We hit a lot of walls – there were times we had to ask for help. You can’t let that stop you from learning and giving it your best shot. It’s not going to be easy. But everything we went through, it was all worth doing.”

    Originally published in the Fall 2022 edition of UCA Magazine.

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  • UCA Alumni Association honors outstanding alumni


    The University of Central Arkansas Alumni Association will honor three former students at the 2022 Alumni Awards celebration.

    Ann Burns Hoy ’62 will be the recipient of the Alumni Service Award while Monica Steinberg ’04 will receive the Young Alumni Award. Two-time alumnus Kim Crissler ’84, ’95 will receive the inaugural Volunteer of the Year Award.

    The trio will be recognized on Friday, Oct. 28, as part of UCA’s Homecoming festivities. The Alumni Awards dinner, which starts at 7 p.m., will take place in the McCastlain Hall Ballroom and is open to the public. Tickets are $25 per person and can be purchased online.

    Additionally, the event will recognize former award winners as well as the Coming Home Queens, former UCA Homecoming Queens who were selected in years ending in 2 (2012, 2002, 1992, etc.).

    “This year’s three alumni award winners are each outstanding representatives of UCA,” said Alison Taylor, executive director of alumni relations. “Their achievements and support of the university serve as a model for other alumni and strengthen the reputation of the university. We’re proud to recognize them for their hard work, service and contributions to the UCA community.”

    Alumni Service Award

    The Alumni Service Award, awarded each year since 2007, is presented to an individual or couple who demonstrate extraordinary commitment, dedication, service and loyalty to UCA. 

    Hoy, this year’s Alumni Service Award recipient, earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Arkansas State Teachers College in 1962. She also earned a master’s degree in education from Long Island University in 1981.

    A retired educator, she taught in nine different schools across six different states during her teaching career. As an alumna, she has been involved with the Alumni Association Board of Directors, the Dean’s Advisory Board for the College of Education, the alumni scholarship committee and has been a donor to Delta Zeta sorority.

    “I am both thrilled and humbled to have been selected for this award,” Hoy said. “It is an unbelievable honor to be singled out as a representative for the many alumni who have contributed so much to the University of Central Arkansas. I cherish this gift and thank all of those who worked with me on the alumni board and others who have made such wonderful contributions to UCA.”

    Young Alumni Award

    The Young Alumni Award, first given for 2020, recognizes exceptional achievements in career, public service and/or volunteer activities from alumni under the age of 40.

    Steinberg, winner of this year’s Young Alumni Award, earned a bachelor’s degree in art history from UCA in 2004. She completed her Ph.D. in art history at the City University of New York in 2016.

    Currently an assistant professor of American Studies in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Hong Kong, Steinberg has published articles in a host of academic journals, including Grey Room, Oxford Art Journal, and the Archives of American Art Journal. She won the Patricia and Phillip Frost Essay Award, which is presented to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American Art, the scholarly journal of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

    “I am surprised and flattered to have won this award,” Steinberg said. “The incredible support of the UCA faculty made all the difference. While I was an undergraduate, Dr. Gayle Seymour drove me to and from conferences and the airport, wrote countless letters of recommendation, and went above and beyond as an academic mentor. And the support of the Honors College was truly amazing: the classes, the community, and the study-abroad and internship experiences.”

    Volunteer of the Year Award

    The Volunteer of the Year Award recognizes a UCA alum who has made significant contributions to the university while volunteering on behalf of the alumni association.

    Crissler, winner of the inaugural Volunteer of the Year Award, is a two-time UCA graduate. He completed a bachelor’s degree in geography in 1984 before earning a master’s degree in history in 1995. He also earned a master’s in public health from Wichita State in 2001.

    Crissler recently retired from a career in the U.S. government and moved back to central Arkansas to be more involved with UCA. He is a member of the UCA Alumni Association Board of Directors and UCA’s Purple Circle.

    “I am humbled and honored to have been chosen for this honor,” Crissler said. “I love UCA and would do anything to help promote the university and to help its students, faculty and staff. When I was at school, I worked for Simms McClintock to help with the Arkansas Model U.N. That was the start of my love for this institution and for all the people who work hard here. I am a very big Bear and no one can ever take that away from me. But I will happily share it with the world.”

    The Alumni Awards dinner is part of UCA’s Homecoming celebration. Other events include the return of the UCA Homecoming Parade, the Half Century Club induction honoring the class of 1972 and the Bear Bash tailgate. A complete schedule of Homecoming events can be found on the UCA website.