What Makes Us Refreshingly Smart?

UNC Asheville's approach to liberal arts isn't about accumulating credits or memorizing textbooks but rather about taking pleasure in a vibrant life of the mind—exploring how diverse disciplines influence one another and learning how to find innovative solutions to complex problems. No matter their discipline, UNC Asheville students, faculty, staff and graduates are people who can think on their feet, make decisions in tough situations and make change happen.

  • Alexandria Duncan

    UNC Asheville didn’t just prepare Alexandra Duncan '05 to write her first novel, Salvage. It opened her eyes to the human condition.

    A liberal arts education taught me to empathize with other people, even those whose lives were very different from my own - Alexandra Duncan '05

    In Salvage, a young-adult science fiction novel, protagonist Ava flees from a merchant spaceship to Ghee, a dystopian continent made of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean. There she must change her previously held beliefs and survive on her own.

    “Ava is confronted with the fact that the world she has been told about all her life is actually very different from what she was led to believe,” Duncan said. “Her changing understanding of the world as a more nuanced place mirrors my own experience of coming to college and recognizing the complex moral and cultural forces at work in my own life and in the wider world.”

    Duncan, who received her degree in literature and Spanish, says that one of the most important things UNC Asheville taught her was accepting criticism in order to better her work.

    “Practice in giving and receiving criticism on our writing was hands-down one of the most valuable aspects of training for being a professional writer my professors ever gave me,” she said. “You have to be able to accept constructive criticism from an editor and let mean-spirited criticism roll off of you.”

    She began her writing career selling short stories to various magazines. A literary agent approached her about writing a young adult novel, which gave her the confidence to write Salvage.

    “I worked in a children’s book store during and after college, and I had utterly fallen in love with the inventiveness and emphasis on narrative in young adult fiction,” she said. “I had been too intimidated to try writing a book before that point, but simply hearing someone in the literary field ask if I had considered it gave me enough confidence to try.”

    Duncan says she first discovered a passion for working with teens while volunteering as an English tutor, thanks to a partnership between UNC Asheville, the Buncombe County Education Coalition and AVID. “I got the chance to meet so many amazing teens and tweens through my tutoring work, along with people from walks of life so different from my own,” Duncan said. “It was a truly humbling and energizing experience.”

  • Katie

    Most UNC Asheville students apply to the university once for an undergraduate degree in any one of 30 majors in the liberal arts and sciences, but Katie Descieux, a history major who graduated in 2006, applied to UNC Asheville twice: once for her undergraduate studies and once for her Master of Liberal Arts (MLA). She simultaneously earned a Certificate in Climate Change and Society in 2012, a field of study she uses daily in her role as research coordinator for the Local Food Research Center at ASAP (Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project).

    I apply what I learned in the program every day. Working where I do, I feel like my job is an endless MLA class on local food systems. I always said that I'd be happy if my career could be going to school full time, but where I got paid instead of having to pay. Wish granted!”- Katie Descieux ’06, ’12

    “I wanted to go back to school for a degree that would allow me to develop my research, writing, and critical thinking skills without being siloed into a specific/traditional scholarly discipline,” said Descieux. “When I learned about the MLA program, I immediately set up a meeting with Jordan Dolfi (who was the program manager and a student in the program at the time) to learn more about it. As Jordan talked I had a life-altering moment and knew that this was what I was meant to do; judging by what Jordan was telling me, the MLA program might as well have been called the "Master of Katie Descieux" program! I began the application process the next day.”

    Upon acceptance into the program in 2009, Descieux started earning the required 30 credit hours, while working 32 hours a week as an optometric technician. She secured an internship at ASAP in 2011, and combined the experience with a part-time job to fit her schedule of evening classes. That internship led to a full-time position at ASAP, in what Descieux calls her dream job.

    “I apply what I learned in the program every day. Working where I do, I feel like my job is an endless MLA class on local food systems. I always said that I'd be happy if my career could be going to school full time, but where I got paid instead of having to pay. Wish granted!”

    As a researcher and research coordinator, Descieux examines the social, economic, and environmental impacts of localizing food systems. She customized her MLA coursework to complement this focus and completed the program in three years.

    “The MLA program isn't the type of graduate degree you ‘just want to get done with.’ It's a life learning opportunity” explained Descieux. “I enjoyed my class on Rene Descartes, learning about the birth of modern philosophy. I also greatly enjoyed the class I took on the psychology of communicating science. It has helped me understand what motivates people to participate (or not participate) in sustainable/healthy behaviors. I also loved all of Dr. Voos' classes. It was his classes that opened my eyes to the world around me and ignited my passion to positively contribute to my community.”

    To learn more about UNC Asheville’s graduate-level certificate and master’s program, which is now called the Master of Liberal Arts and Sciences, visit mlas.unca.edu.

  • Longman

    Sam Moser ’14 first traveled to South Korea the summer before his sophomore year at UNC Asheville for a four-week study abroad trip. This summer, he’ll return on a year-long Fulbright Fellowship.

    “It’s the perfect blend between my educational experience and my appreciation for language and international exchange. South Korea is the place that I’ve spent the least amount of time, so I look forward to going back and re-immersing myself.”- Sam Moser

    Since coming to UNC Asheville from Advance County, Moser has spent a summer in China on a scholarship and a fall semester in India.  He applied for the Fulbright while in India, but the idea first started in a classroom on campus, where one of his favorite professors, Linda Cornett, chair and associate professor of political science, started the semester with a reminder that students should consider a Fulbright Fellowship within their reach.  He also credits Jinhua Li, lecturer in Chinese studies, for preparing him for his many overseas adventures.

    “I wouldn’t have considered it if I hadn’t had these experiences. The interdisciplinary nature of my education, especially the international studies major, has prepared me for the diversity of international travel,” he said.

    Moser will teach English during his fellowship, though he’s also well-versed in Chinese and Korean, and he majored in Spanish with a minor in Asian Studies. His teaching experience includes serving as a UNC Asheville AVID tutor for Asheville City Schools, and he hopes to implement a community garden during his assignment, similar to the models he’s seen on campus. He’ll also start planting the seeds for his graduate school applications when he returns.  

  • Longman

    The sprawling Google campus on the shores of the San Francisco bay in Mountain View, California is a continent away from UNC Asheville, but the preparation Corinne Longman, ’09, received as an undergraduate helped her fit right in.

    I draw on my UNC Asheville experience here all the time. My education taught me to look at research from different perspectives and not make assumptions. Accuracy is very important. I regularly go back to the videos of the user-interaction sessions and review them several times. Then I can give smart, solid feedback to the teams that need it. -Corinne Longman

    Longman, who double-majored in art history and Spanish at UNC Asheville, now works as a junior user experience researcher for Google AdWords, which means she serves as a bridge between the users of Google AdWords and its product team and designers. How did someone with a decidedly un-techy background end up in the heart of Silicon Valley?

    It all started with an art history class during freshman year. Longman fell in love with the combination of art, history, culture and research. She credits her thesis advisor, Leisa Rundquist, with encouraging her to pursue the aspects of a project she found intrinsically interesting and then making her case through relentless research and strong writing. The process taught her how to find hidden connections and to analyze results from multiple angles. It’s a skill she uses at Google every day.

  • Micah

    It takes off like a helicopter, but flies like an airplane. It’s an aircraft of the future, and was imagined, designed and built in part by UNC Asheville alumnus Micah Prendergast ’13.  

    I think it’s nice to have a little bit of liberal arts and little of the hard science. One without the other, then you’re limited in what you can do and what you can understand. Balance is key.”

    Prendergast didn’t quite expect to be helping the engineers at NASA Langley Research Center develop futuristic flying vehicles—it wasn’t his primary area of expertise. He studied ground-based robotics in his mechatronics engineering major at UNC Asheville, and before that he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from UNC-Chapel Hill.

    “I think it’s nice to have a little bit of liberal arts and little of the hard science. One without the other, then you’re limited in what you can do and what you can understand,” Prendergast said. “Balance is key.”

    Prendergast’s broad range of interests and studies made him uniquely suited to create unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for NASA, from designing the concept to actually building the prototype. The idea was to create the kind of vehicle the skies of the future might see, so that NASA can simulate and prepare for the air traffic those vehicles would cause. Prendergast’s work earned him an invitation to return to Langley for a second internship, funded by the NC Space Grant Consortium. He even got to see his creation fly.

    With a UNC Asheville diploma and two NASA internships on his resume (not to mention an internship at Pisgah Astronomical Research and Science Education Center), Prendergast is heading to University of Colorado Boulder, where he’ll turn his focus from robots of the ground and sky to the exciting and gut-wrenching science of bioengineering.

    “I’ll be developing endoscopic robots for crawling inside of your gastrointestinal tract.”

  • Ben Mcdonald

    As a graduating senior at UNC Asheville, Ben McDonald has to make some big decisions very soon. He has been offered scholarships to the graduate chemistry programs at UNC Chapel Hill, Vanderbilt University and Northwestern University. These schools don't exactly fling their doors open to anyone, but they took notice of McDonald's undergraduate research work with the cancer drug combretastatin.

    UNC Asheville was the only school I applied to. It's the only one I wanted to go to.”

    Working with fellow students and UNC Asheville faculty, McDonald spent two summers experimenting with ways to optimize the drug's ability starve a tumor's blood supply while trying to minimize its side effects. As he describes it, McDonald was the architect, engineer, and builder on his part of the project—designing what he thought could be an optimal molecule and experimenting in the lab to create it.

    Thanks to UNC Asheville's undergraduate research program, McDonald accumulated master's degree-worthy experience before even achieving his bachelor's diploma. With real-world experience like this, it's no wonder that more than 95 percent of UNC Asheville's Chemistry students who apply to graduate, veterinary, dental and medical programs are accepted.

  • Avi Goldberg

    At some point, practically everyone has tried -- and failed -- to move something with their minds. But Avi Goldberg, a Computer Science major at UNC Asheville, does it every day.

    This could be used for handicapped accessibility, gaming or anything where you want to control a computer with your mind.”

    Wearing a single-sensor Electroencephalography (EEG) device, a headset that reads electrical activity in the brain, Goldberg can move a volume control on his computer by just thinking. Concentration makes the digital slider go up, and meditation makes it go down.

    The idea came from a friend, a DJ who wanted a way to control his MIDI player with his mind. So Goldberg, an undergraduate research student at UNC Asheville who also dabbles in creating electronic music, mapped out a possible solution. He started modifying open-source software in order to connect the cheapest EEG device on the market (only $100) to his computer's controls. He wants to prove that using mental power as a computer input doesn't have to cost thousands of dollars and require massive research teams.

    If expanded, his software could eventually be adapted to more than just volume controls. In a few years, he expects this technology could become affordable everyday hardware for everyone from handicapped persons to video gamers. Pretty soon, we all might be moving objects with mind power.

  • Ben Mcdonald

    "One of the most powerful novels I have ever read." – Fred Chappell, author

    "The writing is bold, daring, graceful, and engrossing." – Bobbie Ann Mason, author

    Novelist Wiley Cash is already hearing high praise as his debut novel, "A Land More Kind Than Home," rolls off the presses.

    Since he graduated from UNC Asheville with a Literature degree in 2000, Wiley Cash has earned a doctorate and taught at a university in West Virginia, but his memories of living in the mountains of Western North Carolina have stuck with him.

    "My writing professors at UNC Asheville took their students' development very seriously and professionally, which is to say they didn't coddle you."

    His novel is set in Madison County, just 45 minutes from Asheville. "A Land More Kind Than Home" explores how a close-knit mountain town and church congregation reacts after a woman dies during a snake-handling ritual. Cash's writing is equally informed by his time studying Southern writers at UNC Asheville and his Appalachian history classes with Professor Dan Pierce. There, he learned to reach beyond the stereotypical depictions of mountain folk – finding people of depth, complexity and contradictions.

    The combination of Cash's earthy storytelling and an understanding of his subjects are so overwhelming that Harper Collins has already asked him to commit to another novel. During the summer of 2012, he's leaving academia completely and becoming a full-time author – a strong start to a promising career.

  • hibbert

    It was in the Bay of Campeche on the world’s second largest offshore oil platform installation barge that UNC Asheville graduate Jenny Hibbert realized she’d found her passion.

    I’d had the idea of majoring in physics, but the prospect of so much math was scary. Dr. Doug Miller pulled me aside one day and told me, ‘Don’t let being afraid of the math be the reason you don’t major in meteorology. You can do this.” - Jenny Hibbert

    “This was the best experience of my life,” Hibbert says of her stint as resident weather expert on the crane barge Saipem 7000, a monstrous vessel with two towering cranes, each capable of lifting 7,000 tons. The barge installs large oil platforms, and it was Hibbert’s job to monitor and forecast tropical weather during the work. Many lives depended on her.

    Meteorology was not in Hibbert’s plans when she entered UNC Asheville in 2004 after graduating from Chapel Hill High School. She had lots of interests, but no one major seemed perfect for her. As she explained, “Turns out my mom knows me better than I know myself. She said, ‘You really should try meteorology.’”

    “I’d had the idea of majoring in physics, but the prospect of so much math was scary. Dr. Doug Miller pulled me aside one day and told me, ‘Don’t let being afraid of the math be the reason you don’t major in meteorology. You can do this.’”

    And indeed she did.

    After Saipem 7000 in the tropics, Hibbert volunteered for her next assignment a half a world away, where massive ice floes and strong tidal currents challenged her forecasting skills. And then...Singapore called. Hibbert currently works in Southeast Asia as an offshore marine meteorologist for Fugro, a worldwide company that collects and interprets data relating to the earth’s surface and sub-surface, working mainly with the oil, gas and mining industry.

    So what’s next for this adventurous UNC Asheville grad?

    “I have a million long-term dreams, some that are absolutely far-fetched like ‘go to the moon,’ and some that are as simple as ‘enjoy what you do,’” Hibbert said. “I think making goals and dreaming big is one of the most satisfying thought games I play with myself. There are still a million directions my life could go. I would like to see Antarctica. I’d like to expand my career outside of weather forecasting, perhaps buoy maintenance or oceanography or seismic data processing or offshore surveying...or maybe business school to get an MBA and move into management and mergers and acquisitions...or join the circus!”