Flowing past fields and factories and homes, Interstate 40 unspools, a 2,500-mile coast-to-coast concrete ribbon of lives dreamed and real. On this highway, University of Arkansas – Fort Smith alumni – travelers all – journey to the east, to the west, to the promise of tomorrow. These are the stories of a few who craft the beautiful ordinary along the 460-mile road from Memphis to Oklahoma City. They teach. They learn. They create. They live.
As Brennan Will walked down the stairs of the Sebastian Commons, he didn’t know a chance meeting with a girl headed up the same steps would alter his life.
For Elizabeth Will, the stairs were the spot where she first “saw his cute face.”
A mutual friend who was with Elizabeth introduced them. It didn’t prove long before Elizabeth asked Brennan to take her to play putt-putt. Brennan agreed, but then the shy man thought about canceling. His friends encouraged him to go that June 16, 2007.
The couple wed on Dec. 15, 2007, one day before the six-month mark and one day after finals.
“We both knew after the first date that we were going to get married,” Elizabeth said.
Family and friends tried to convince them to wait until they finished college, saying they would only quit school. But the married couple remained in school and kept their scholarships as both pursued degrees in middle school education with an emphasis in math and science. They shared books. Studied together. Persevered.
Brennan graduated in May 2010. Elizabeth finished in December 2010 – her student teaching delayed a semester due to the birth of their firstborn son, Braeden. She graduated on their third anniversary.
Under the Arkansas STAR program, Brennan needed to find a teaching position in Arkansas to have his student loans forgiven. He drove to interviews at schools in Malvern, Booneville, Rogers, Texarkana, and more. He never received the call offering him a position.
“Every door was closed,” he said. “We’d been praying for a long time for God to show us where to go.”
The answer came through then-UAFS professor Gabriel Matney. He recommended Brennan for a position teaching geometry at a charter high school in Oklahoma City. Days after the phone interview, Brennan received a call offering him the position. The family moved 177 miles west to start anew. Now, Brennan teaches six sections of that subject to more than 140 students at the year-around school.
“I enjoy giving people information to help them better themselves in some way to have a better life,” he said.
Elizabeth works with their children, home schooling and caring for them. Braeden, now 5, has been joined by James, Grace and, born Jan. 1, Hannah.
“I’m really blessed that he’s so good at budgeting,” Elizabeth said of Brennan.
The couple has also cared for numerous foster children – a set of three older siblings for nine months, an infant boy for more than a year, others for shorter periods including just one night. Oklahoma, Brennan said, has 12,000 children in its foster system.
“A large percentage of them live in a shelter because there are not enough homes,” he said.
For the couple, Oklahoma City is home now.
“It happened really fast for us,” Elizabeth said. “We had such a sense of purpose and knew this is where we were supposed to be.”
Alley (Reid) Meredith, ’12, watched as the optometrist leaned forward to peer past the iris, the cornea and the pupil to the tiny blood vessels that run like canals in the back of the young boy’s eyes.
The boy’s general practitioner had referred the boy to the eye doctor in Hot Springs, Arkansas, because he suffered from an unknown illness that had a symptom of blurry vision. Meredith watched the optometrist, whom she was shadowing, sit back and tell the boy’s mother that he needed to be put on insulin immediately. The boy had Type 1 diabetes.
Meredith knew in that instant that she had found the career for her.
“The smallest blood vessels are in the back of the eye. That’s where diseases show up first,” she said.
Plus poor eyesight is a problem she knows well.
“I can’t see anything unless I have lenses to help me,” she said of her myopia, measured at 20/200 in both eyes.
It was a career that the previous studio art major hadn’t imagined. But after she took a biology class with UAFS Professor Ragupathy Kannan, he suggested that she should become a doctor. And he continued to suggest that she become a doctor.
“He was probably my biggest influence besides the experience in Hot Springs,” she said.
During Meredith’s sophomore year, she switched her major to biology.
“I felt like I was learning, and I like to learn,” she said about her new major.
On a snowy February morning in 2012, the day after she interviewed for a place at Southern College of Optometry, she awoke to the news of a snow day at UAFS. Then her day became even better when her phone rang and she saw the Memphis area code of 901. The call informed her that she had been selected to attend the professional school in Memphis.
In fall 2012, she started at the optometry school, where she found that her classes at UAFS, especially those in physics and genetics, had prepared her well.
“That first year I didn’t have much of a life,” she said. “I really wanted to prove myself.”
Now in her third year, she has done that.
Meredith has a special passion for helping those with low vision, an impairment that cannot be corrected by lenses. Instead they need help with high-powered telescopes and microscopes, occupational therapy or encouragement.
Meredith and her husband, Winn Meredith, whom she married on Aug. 24, 2014, plan to eventually settle in Arkansas.
But first, in March, she must take her medical board examinations, which cover all of the bookwork from her three years of classes. Then she and her husband have three four-month externships in Fayetteville, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennessee; and Fernandina Beach, Florida.
She looks back to Kannan’s encouragement that started her on the journey.
And she recalls the words of UAFS biology professor Davis Pritchett, who told her, “You can do it, you can.” And so she does.
Finding Her Niche
Shawn Cozzens, ’90, didn’t begin college with a future decided.
“I wasn’t one of those people who knew what I wanted to be when I grew up,” said the Maumelle, Arkansas, resident.
After graduating from Van Buren High School, she started at Westark Community College trying to figure that out.
While she studied for her classes and served as an ambassador with the Pride of Westark, she made many lifelong friends. After one year at the then-junior college, she transferred to the University of Central Arkansas. She worked two jobs to pay for college. She pledged a sorority. She volunteered with different organizations. And she still wondered what she should do when she grew up.
First, she thought about education because she came from a family of educators. But in her volunteering, she didn’t find it a good fit for her.
“I’m not a teacher,” she said. “It didn’t bring me joy.”
Finally, because of the many biology classes she had taken, she decided on a degree in health. That degree required her to do worksite shadowing at a hospital.
“I had found my niche,” she said
After graduating from UCA, she attended the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences for a one-year program in nuclear medicine. In that field, which is part of radiology, she performs brain scans, bone scans, scans of internal organs and more.
“I have loved getting up and going to work every single day,” she said.
Cozzens has spent her career working at hospitals or health centers, including managing an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) center where she performed scans when needed as well as handling the marketing and motivating employees. She also found time to earn a master’s degree in public health from Tulane University in partnership with Johns Hopkins University.
“I want to make a difference in healthcare and in people’s lives,” she said.
Now she works at the UAMS Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy. There, she runs PET (positron emission tomography) and CT (computed tomography) scans by injecting tracers that seek out cancer.
“If it’s in the blood, liver, organs or skin, we’ll find it,” she said.
She also has started her own company, Genomics and Personalized Health. The company works with doctors who want patients genetically tested in pain, cardiac and depression to better tailor their treatments.
“I love startups,” she said. “I love challenges.”
Along with working the two jobs, she has a third, as mother to Ethan, 16, and Brodie, 6.
“They are just the loves of my life,” she said.
Despite the busyness of two jobs and two sons, Cozzens takes time to serve on the UAFS Alumni Advisory Board.
“I want to give back and be a part of that community that gave me a start,” she said.
In a Good Place
Hannah (Cross) Osborne, ’08, had one question for the interviewer who asked her if she wanted to sell servers.
“What’s a server?” she said.
“We’ll teach you everything you need to know in training,” the interviewer replied.
On her first day of training with Hewlett-Packard, Osborne indeed learned about computer servers, and much more.
“The first six weeks, I didn’t really talk to anyone,” she said. “I was trying to soak in the information.”
She absorbed it just fine. While working in sales, Osborne nabbed honors as the number one inside sales representative for several quarters. She also was named Most Valuable Player in her first full quarter on the floor.
But Osborne knew she wanted to do more than sales. She began to work her way into management at Hewlett-Packard. Now, she’s the human resources information technology manager, directly overseeing a team of 20 and indirectly managing a group of 50.
“I had the foundational knowledge and support to be able to do it,” Osborne said. “UAFS continues to be a source of knowledge and networking for me.”
Originally from Sheridan, Arkansas, Osborne had first enrolled at another university as a music major. When she found herself pregnant with her daughter, Haleigh, she moved to Fort Smith for help from her father. She enrolled at UAFS and changed her major to business.
“I had a family now and I couldn’t support her with music,” Osborne said about switching her major.
Osborne joined Phi Beta Lambda, a business student organization, and received experience in management, marketing and sales.
“It’s what really expanded my growth in business,” she said.
It also gave her the opportunity to compete nationally through the organization. At that level, she won awards for partnership with businesses, community service project and business plan.
A UAFS class trip to Guadalajara, Mexico, has continued to pay dividends for Osborne as a professional. The students visited various factories and met with students at a Mexican university.
“It really opened my eyes to the requirements of global business, and made me think that maybe the U.S. isn’t always the best place to do business,” she said. “Since Hewlett-Packard is a global company, it really prepared me for understanding different countries’ cultural expectations.”
After graduating from UAFS, she first settled in northwest Arkansas working for J.B. Hunt in the brokerage department. Then she saw the position advertised for Hewlett-Packard.
“When you see a window of opportunity, jump through it, even if you aren’t confident about the result,” she said, “High risks return high rewards.”
In the future, Osborne may pursue a Master of Business Administration and eventually wants to become a university professor. But for now, she’s enjoying being a mother and a newlywed after marrying Jason Osborne on Jan. 11, 2014.
“I held out because I wanted a good dad for my blessing of a daughter,” she said. “I wanted to make sure we were in a good place first. Now, I’m in the best place of my life.”
Minoring in Adventure
When Peter Cullum, ’94 and ’14, considers his traditionalist landscape painting style, he thinks back to his childhood – and the road he’s traveled since.
Raised in Hanson, Oklahoma, just outside of Sallisaw, he, his brother and cousins spent days outside exploring the creeks and woods around their rural community.
“It was not so much a community as living in a giant extended family,” he said. “It was full of Cullums, lousy with them.”
Cullum left that enclave after graduating from Hanson’s Central High School in 1992. He knew he wanted to pursue art. At Westark Community College, he met with Don Lee, the head of the art program and the first to criticize his work.
“It convinced me that here’s a place that would challenge me,” he said. “That was the tough love I needed. Fortunately, I knew I needed it.”
At the time, Cullum imagined a future working as an animator. But his plans began to shift as he studied figure drawing, printmaking and painting. He learned to see objects as shapes. He took control of colors and forms. And he locked into a tradition that traces its history to cave walls.
“I fell in love with the whole thing – the smell of the paint, the click of the knife on the palette mixing paint, the smell of linseed oil,” he said.
After graduating from Westark, he enrolled at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, a decision he initially found exciting and terrifying.
“I knew they were giving me good information here, but I was afraid that I would show up in Philadelphia and be leagues behind and have to catch up,” he said. “It was exactly the opposite.”
For four years, Cullum immersed himself in a world fanatically focused on art. But his part-time work in the institute’s museum showed him other job possibilities in the arts, regardless of his painting career’s success.
“When you’re young you think your art will change the world and if it doesn’t, you think you’ve failed,” he said.
After completing his certificate in painting, Cullum’s computer experience led to a position with the institute designing advertisements, signs and websites. Yet, he felt the pull of home and his painting. In 2001, he returned to Sallisaw, where he’s lived since. He spent a year focusing on his painting, transitioning from a pop art style to traditional landscapes.
“I don’t know if it was growing up in the country, running around Hanson Hill, the colors and the light,” he said. All he knows is landscape painting pulled him into it.
He also began teaching art at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith at the Western Arkansas Technical Center and as an adjunct instructor. That led to him working as a graphic designer for the university.
“I’d really caught the bug of teaching,” he said.
In the fall, he’ll enroll in a master of fine arts program to study painting.
“As I would tell my students, when you major in art, you minor in adventure,” he said.
Where She Wants To Be
For June Pham, ’14, life has come down to art and family.
Five years ago what this native of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, knew about the United States came from watching movies and what her uncle said about life in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
While she had a degree in multimedia from a private university, friends and a job offer in the city formerly known as Saigon, she wanted to see more of the world. In 2010, she stepped on a plane with her parents for 30 hours of traveling to a reunion with her uncle and cousins.
Pham enrolled at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith with a major in graphic design. In her previous studies, she learned the technical skills of multimedia.
“Here they focus on training minds to create designs that have more meaning,” she said.
She knew she had found the right career path when on her first day of classes a professor described the program as competitive with only the best advancing to the degree.
“I thought it was awesome because we don’t have that competition in Vietnam,” she said.
Graphic design proved an apt fit for Pham. As an only child, she would entertain herself by creating stories in her imagination and then drawing them. In high school, she decided to pursue her passion for art before she settled on a career in graphic design.
“You get to do something meaningful for more people and you get paid to do what you love,” she said.
She studied art alongside graphic design at UAFS. She combined the two during her junior year to create an opening sequence for “Edward Scissorhands,” her favorite film. That class project, which used stop motion animation, won a silver award in the national American Advertising Federation awards competition.
“Professors pushed us to produce better ideas,” she said of her training in the program. “So many of my first sketches were thrown away.”
Learning from the critiques and competitive classes helped Pham land first an internship, then a position with Stone Ward, one of the largest advertising agencies in Arkansas. She is the youngest designer in the Little Rock office. Each day her job changes, from creating a logo one day to designing a website the next.
But at night, she goes home to create her own art. Visitors to the Van Buren Center for Art and Education saw work by Pham and her cousin Xumi Pham, ’13, during a show in March. Pham’s work included a woodcut series exploring the five stages of grief through anthropomorphic animals, such as a roaring tiger in a dress representing the third stage of anger.
“The dream in my head is to sell my own art and make a living off of it,” she said. “If not, I’ll do it on the side. I love being a designer and the agency is the place where I want to be.”
Keeping Her Vow
Decades ago Jutta O’Neal, ’11, made a vow to herself. In 2011, she fulfilled it.
Born and raised close to Hanau, Germany, she met an American soldier, John O’Neal, and married him in 1976. Her world changed, and with it her plans.
“I should have pursued my education a little better, but I didn’t,” she said. “My attention was diverted to my family.”
She busied herself with the many changes that come in life.
In 1977, she and John moved from Germany to Delaware when John left the Army and began driving trucks.
O’Neal also began an emotional journey that ended in 1981 when she took her oath to become a United States citizen during a ceremony in Philadelphia.
“It’s always been an honor to be a citizen,” she said. “I didn’t give up my German citizenship lightly.”
Then in 1999, the family moved to Forrest City, Arkansas, following her husband’s job south.
Yet, through the moves, life changes, making school lunches and raising their daughter and son, O’Neal always remembered that long-ago vow.
“I promised myself that I’d give myself the education that my mother expected of me,” she said.
She began making good on that vow in 2006. She quit her office job with a trucking company and signed up for classes at Eastern Arkansas Community College. Two years later, she graduated with an associate degree. But she didn’t stop there.
She had learned about the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith distance education program, which would allow her to take classes via satellite from a classroom at the community college in Forrest City. She began her classes toward a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 2008. Licensed as a commercial driver since 1981, O’Neal team-drove with her husband to make weekly deliveries of Boar’s Head products from the plant in Forrest City to Ohio and New York. She would work on her homework while waiting for the truck to be loaded and unloaded.
At times, discouragement crept in and she thought about quitting. Her husband would then encourage her. “If anyone can do it, you can. Keep going,” he said. So she did.
“If you’re dedicated and don’t mind working on your own, that’s the way to go,” O’Neal said of the distance education program.
When she attended the May 2011 graduation ceremony, it was the first time she stepped onto the UAFS campus.
“My mom was very, very excited, very happy,” O’Neal said. “I guess mom hadn’t expected me to follow through.”
Her business degree proved useful when in September 2013, O’Neal and her husband expanded their trucking company, O’Neal Transport, which they founded in 2007. They now own three trucks and employ eight people, including themselves. O’Neal hasn’t been on the road much since then. Instead, she mainly works in the office handling paperwork for the business.
“My classes have really helped,” she said. “I use it all the time.”
Now, she has three years to accomplish her next goal: to earn her master’s degree by the time she’s 60.
“Anything is possible as long you want it bad enough,” she said.