Alumni to Watch
From Jennifer Denault
Director of Development and Alumni Affairs
With 22 departments and more than 15 academic centers and institutes, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at UF attracts a broad range of students with highly varied ambitions and goals. But what happens to this diverse group after they leave our hallowed halls? What do our graduates do with their Liberal Arts degrees? From computer guru to media mogul to best-selling novelist, the following University of Florida "alumni to watch" prove that a Liberal Arts and Sciences education can bring a world of opportunities.
Political science major Alison Dexter can't say she planned to be the senior vice president for production, operations and strategic planning at a cable network specializing in children's programming. "I thought I was going to be a lawyer or a politician," she admits. As an executive at Nickelodeon, this CLAS alumna attributes her success to an eclectic personality. "I am the translator," says Dexter, "because I get along with the creative team and the management team, and that's not easy to do." After graduating in 1982, Dexter and her roommate moved to California to try making it as casting directors and they worked on productions such as Moonlighting and About Last Night. "We were crazy, but it gave us a great experience," Dexter recalls. After returning to Florida, Dexter used her creativity to get a job at Universal Studios. "You know when people ask you where you want to be in five years? The only thing I could tell them was where I didn't want to be. But when I started working at Universal, I finally knew this was the right universe for me. No pun intended," Alison jokes.
After a few years with Universal, Alison took a job at Nickelodeon and quickly advanced to become senior vice president. She now spends her time between New York and Los Angeles, which doesn't leave her much time to visit Gainesville. "I loved my time at UF," she says. "It was a wonderful experience. It was a time to grow up, and I learned from everything I did, but there was also a lot of fun to be had." Alison is another great example of just how diverse the career field is for CLAS grads, and as she is making her mark in the business world she is also making Gators everywhere proud.
When James Grippando graduated with a Political Science degree in 1980, he longed to write. But he didn't see a future in that. "Writing was more of a dream than a goal. I never thought I would earn a living writing, and I knew I wanted to go to Law School," he says. "I stayed at UF because I loved the education I was getting and the University had become a part of me." Ironically, 10 years later while working as an attorney at Steel, Hector and Davis in Miami, it was Jim's own run-in with the law that helped him to develop the premise for his first best-selling novel. As a busy attorney, the only time he could write was in the middle of the night. On one such late night, while fighting a case of writer's block, Jim took a walk near his home in Coral Gables and was picked up by the police. For a brief moment he was misidentified and accused of a crime he hadn't committed. "Write what you know" goes the old adage, and that fleeting yet very frightening moment gave Jim just the inspiration he needed for The Pardon. Now working on his sixth novel, Jim has found the success as a writer he never thought possible.
While attending UF, he was in the High Honors program, graduating with a 3.96 and the Outstanding Male Leader Award. Jim was tapped into Florida Blue Key in 1979 and chaired Homecoming in 1980. "The reason I picked my literary agent was because he was George Burns' agent when I chaired Homecoming, and Burns appeared at Growl. I figured it must be fate." When asked what he remembers most about his days at UF the lawyer-turned-author recalls, "Library West and sitting amongst the stacks, studying. I always kept my class work in perspective even though I was very involved in other activities." Now Jim spends most of his time writing. He and his wife, Tiffany Russell Grippando, an FSU English Literature grad, are raising their two children, Kaylee Suzanne and Ryan James. "The only time the mixed marriage can really be felt is during the Florida vs. FSU football game. Otherwise, we are living proof that it can work."
It hasn't taken long for 1993 computer science major Michael McNeal to make his mark. In 1996, Michael became President and CEO of his own computer programming company, Absolutely Software, Inc. (Absoft), based in Boca Raton. Absoft is now the leading provider for client-server software in the wireless communication industry. As a result, McNeal has been showered with awards, recognition, and plenty of business. "I am still pinching myself," he admits. "I can hardly believe our success--it happened so fast." Michael's latest accolade came in June, when he was named Ernst & Young's Young Entrepreneur of the Year. During his acceptance speech Michael bestowed special praise on the University of Florida, drawing a rousing cheer from Gators in the audience. "After my speech people were coming up and talking to me about how much they loved the University, too."
Michael decided not to work for industry leaders like IBM, EDS and Motorola. Instead, McNeal decided to take a class on how to start his own business, which then helped him to start Absoft. Not long after McNeal's company was off the ground, Motorola asked him to consult on a new project. "I knew this [wireless communication software] was a gold mine the day I walked out of Motorola's offices," he says. Seeing the opportunity of a lifetime, Michael proposed that Absoft become a Motorola vendor. Within a few months Microsoft Canada came calling, and McNeal found himself with a full-grown operation to run. But 80 hour work-weeks can't keep Michael from his other passions. "I would do anything for my alma mater," he says. "By the way, can you get me tickets to the Tennessee game?"