When prospective students begin researching institutions of higher learning, the University of Central Arkansas stands out for its commitment to the lifelong intellectual development of students, dedication to the pursuit of knowledge and devotion to continuous growth through innovation. UCA is home to many programs and degrees one cannot find anywhere else in the state, and sometimes the region.
UCA has dedicated itself to putting excellence into action since the very beginning. The dictionary defines “excellence” as “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good,” and, fittingly, it is one of the four pillars of the UCA Now fundraising campaign.
“We are constantly trying to improve, and that shows at UCA when you look at all of the programs we have across campus,” said Shelby Fiegel, director of the UCA Center for Community and Economic Development (CCED) and Community Development Institute (CDI) Central. “Our holistic approach to knowledge, consistent engagement and the understanding across campus that we all buy into the vision – that is what makes us excellent.”
UCA is the only university in Arkansas that offers a film degree in which every required major class is a film course, and it is the only university in the state that offers a Master of Fine Arts in film. The UCA digital film program is what stopped Nathaly Moreno ’19 from attending another university for graduate school.
“What stands out for me about life at UCA is the community,” Moreno said. “Everyone is here to help each other and make each other better – students, graduate students and professors. We all want to deliver an experience for each other that nurtures our filmmaking abilities.”
Bruce Hutchinson, UCA film professor and program coordinator, speculates that the program’s dedication to the student experience significantly influences gaining and retaining students. He often brings in professional filmmakers who can network and mentor the students through the program.
If a student remains in Arkansas after graduation, they become part of a filmmaking community.
“Once you graduate, you kind of drift off and hopefully stay in touch, but here in the film department, we stay in touch with most of our alumni because we’re all still making movies together,” said Hutchinson. “A lot of our students continue to work on projects together after graduation. It’s a very special experience.”
The trend of fostering a culture of excellence is not limited to one program or area on campus. UCA is also proud to offer students many different career-focused internships. Yiling “Caroline” Deng, an assistant professor in UCA’s College of Business, detailed the multiple opportunities provided for students in the insurance and risk management program.
“More than 95% of the students in this program land a job before they graduate,” said Deng. “Many of our students get internships while they are juniors, so they begin early and can either return to that position or even get promoted after they graduate.”
UCA offers the state’s only insurance and risk management degree. The program is rigorous and provides students with a variety of career options. Sierra Camp, a Marine Corps veteran and UCA senior, has already had three internships. She says the professors and her involvement with Gamma Iota Sigma, the insurance industry’s collegiate talent pipeline, have propelled her towards success.
“It is something I will hopefully be doing until retirement,” she said. “You can literally apply anything to insurance, and they have so many different job opportunities available. It is an awesome field to get into. With Gamma Iota Sigma, we get to go to conferences and meet and network with insurance professionals from all over the country. It is a great opportunity to have here at UCA.”
UCA houses the Arkansas Insurance Hall of Fame, which inducts a new class of insurance professionals each year bringing more than 500 visitors to campus.
UCA is also set apart by being the only university in Arkansas with a freestanding geography department.
“Freestanding means that even though we are a smaller department on campus, we are the Department of Geography,” said Stephen O’Connell, associate professor and chair of the Department of Geography. “There are other geographers at other universities across the state, and some of those [programs] offer minors only, or they are housed inside a history or sociology program.”
Geography focuses on three broad categories: human geography, physical geography and overarching geographic techniques. Each of the six faculty members in the UCA geography department identifies as a geographer. They teach how each category influences the other. Students learn there are a variety of career paths for their futures. Marisol Filares, a senior geography major, enjoys the flexibility of the field.
“We concentrate a lot on geospatial technology, and one of them is GIS [geographic information system]. Many geographers actually get jobs in emergency management, natural resources or even the environmental fields,” Filares said. “You see a lot of different titles, and geography is a component of all of it.”
Filares’ interest in geography comes from her wanting to help people make informed decisions. GIS programs help determine flood-prone areas, for example. She is interning at the Arkansas Department of Transportation’s environmental division in GIS data management.
“I want to explore the GIS world and learn as much as I can,” Filares said. “Emergency management is something that I’m leaning towards as I grow and learn in my career.”
There are several reasons a student would want to choose UCA, including its nationally-recognized Honors College, educational cyber range and the fact that UCA is an Apple Distinguished School. There is a common trend across campus in that each student is set up for success – not only while earning their degrees, but also after they graduate and become community members. The CCED is standing evidence of that.
“The university is not only intentional about setting students up for success; it also plays a pivotal role in community and economic development,” said Dylan Edgell, assistant director for the CCED and program and project manager. “There’s not really anyone else in the state that does what we do in the center.”
In 2020, CCED partnered with UCA Service-Learning to create several AmeriCorps Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA) positions to serve in communities across Arkansas including Hot Spring and Lonoke Counties.
Alyssa Frisby ’21, has always been involved in community activities in Lonoke, particularly those involving nutrition and exercise. As a running coach, dietitian and volunteer with the food pantry, Frisby noticed there was a need to connect some residents to available resources in the city. She knew the community development VISTA position would be a perfect way to help.
“It’s been an eye-opening experience so far, but having the support from UCA from the community development and economic development aspect has been amazing because they’ve seen this before,” Frisby said. “They have worked in small communities all over Arkansas. They have great resources and advice. They believe Lonoke can grow and be a better place for all its residents.”
The CCED offers internships, graduate assistantships and fellowships for students. It also houses the Community Development Institute (CDI), a three-year training program enrolling 150 professionals from across Arkansas and the mid-south gather to learn about community and economic development. After completing the program, attendees receive a Professional Community and Economic Developer certificate.
“We are the first CDI site in the United States,” said Fiegel. “It’s a robust look at how a university can use its resources to support communities. We try to create a complete view of the development process through the work we do here. When we are working in our community, we are working with the thought leaders and decision makers. It comes with a lot of weight, and it’s very important work. The impact is huge because we are positively portraying UCA to all of these community leaders.”
The UCA vision centers on student success. The institution prepares students to engage in complex issues and express informed opinions through critical thinking, writing and speech. This foundation inspires all five colleges to work together to ensure faculty, staff and students promote excellence and lifelong learning.
“It’s not only about training students through classroom learning, but it’s also about looking at how we can support local economies all over the state,” said Fiegel. “We are boots on the ground making sure rural and midsized areas of Arkansas have access to the tools they need to improve their communities for a better place to live, work and play; and that, in turn, helps our graduates.”
UCA is home to the Interprofessional Teaching Center (ITC) inside the newly built Integrated Health Sciences Building established within the College of Health and Behavioral Sciences. The ITC is another example of how UCA uniquely serves the Conway area. It is an innovative and educational health care facility for the community, meant to meet specific health care needs for the general population while also providing students opportunities to gain clinical experience. It is the first of its kind in the region.
UCA is also the state’s only university to offer a bachelor’s degree in addiction studies. The program is ranked 10th in the nation on Addiction Counselor’s list of top addiction counseling bachelor’s programs.
In addition to the examples listed above, students, professors and administrators from one end of the campus to the other can talk about different aspects that make UCA exceptional.
“Students are not just attending UCA because it is close to home,” said Hutchinson. “They’re coming to UCA because they are excited about the community that we’ve built. They’re excited about the access they will have to the equipment, opportunities, and facilities that are only found at UCA, and they want to be a part of it.”