Alumni Profiles Archive

Kristoffer Ylanen, '13

The Right Moves: Kristoffer Ylanen '13

Success does not arrive overnight. For Kristoffer “Toff” Ylanan, ’12, dancing did not immediately place him under the spotlight. Studying ballet under UNC Asheville’s Constance Schrader, he used dancing as a way help balance his class schedule and social life. After graduating with a degree in psychology, Ylanan enjoyed living as a young graduate in Asheville.

But when University of North Carolina School of the Arts allowed him to audition to learn ballet under some of the country’s accomplished instructors, he knew had to go.

“Imagine my surprise when a few days after my audition, I received a very enthusiastic e-mail from the associate dean accepting me into the school, under full scholarship,” Ylanan said. “All I needed to do was to apply. Gleefully, I officially applied to the school and wrapped up six years of my life in my gorgeous mountain home. It was a bittersweet moment.”

Making art with dance wasn’t always the clear path to the spotlight, though. Ylanan said after his first year as a UNC Asheville alumnus, he was struggling to stay positive. One day during a master class with professional dancer Mel Tomlinson, everything clicked.

Kristoffer Ylanan
Kristoffer Ylanan
“Immediately, he looks at me and says, ‘you’re going to be a star!’ Granted, I was the only boy who took his class, but I definitely felt awestruck and teary-eyed,” Ylanan said. “It’s a powerful thing when someone you don’t know believes in you. I think that was the moment that I knew I had a purpose in life – to spread my joy of art and live in the moment with dance.”

During his time at UNC Asheville, scholarships made it possible for him to get to where he is. Today is no different. Ylanan pursues his talent thanks to the donors who believed in him.

He plans to attend a summer intensive with Boston Ballet this summer to network with directors and explore the city. He plans on eventually auditioning for the Boston Ballet Company. No matter where he ends up, Ylanan knows it was his UNC Asheville education that helped get him there.

"Through my humanities courses, I have learned that creating art is a human endeavor and we have been practicing it for eons," he said. "My experiences, the lessons that I have learned, and the knowledge that I have gained are unique to me. They have fortified my dancing. Thank you, UNC Asheville, for giving me to the tools to navigate this world."

You can help make dreams come true for students like Ylanan by supporting scholarships. Make a gift to support our students today.

Heather Sain Pressley, '13

Heather & Rodney PressleyEven though teaching was always her passion, Heather Sain Pressley '13 knew that to really make a difference in the classroom, she needed to know the subject matter inside-and-out. She chose to major in mathematics at UNC Asheville because it gave her the best of both worlds: a solid foundation in math and the communication skills necessary to get through to students.

"My studies at UNC Asheville have helped me understand mathematics as a science and an art," she says. "This broadened perspective, along with the various, diverse learning experiences provided by the education department, has prepared me to inspire students to become life-long learners."

Heather just graduated in May, but she has already accepted a job in Roanoke, Va., where she will be teaching math to middle school students. When the school year starts, she knows she'll be ready, thanks to the professors that helped drive and inspire her.

"Patrick Bahls' pedagogy and style of teaching have given me a clear example of the educator I'd like to be," she says. "Nancy Ruppert inspired me to devote my life to working with young adolescents through her evident passion for the same."

Although she misses the close-knit environment of campus, she couldn't be happier to be starting this chapter of her life. Even better, she has her husband and fellow UNC Asheville grad Rodney Pressley, Jr. to share it with. Rodney, a mechatronics major, recently landed a job as an engineer at TMEIC, where he designs control systems for crane automation. He proposed to Heather in front of Ramsey Library, where they spent hours together studying calculus as students.

"There is no way to truly express my gratitude for the experiences that UNC Asheville provided me," she says. "I am a better person because of UNC Asheville."

Jesse Michel ’10 and Patrick Conant ’11

Hitting the Right Notes: Jesse Michel ’10 & Patrick Conant ’11

Asheville Music Guide founders Jesse Michel ’10 and Patrick Conant ’11

Asheville Music Guide is the most comprehensive calendar for music shows and concerts around the Asheville area. Co-founder Zach Boylston got the idea when he almost missed one of his favorite artists, Shaky Graves, play at the Grey Eagle. After speaking with a mutual friend, he reached out to Jesse Michel ’10 and Patrick Conant ’11 about developing a website where users could not only see all of the music-focused events in Asheville, but also discover bands at less popular venues that they may enjoy.

Michel and Conant met in the dorms during their first semester at UNC Asheville. Michel, a computer science major, transferred to UNC Asheville in order to obtain a well-rounded perspective on computer and web engineering.

“I was drawn to UNC Asheville specifically to add a liberal arts education to the technical skillset I was building,” he said. “It was more valuable to combine those disciplines than just have an engineering focus.”

Michel also completed his undergraduate research by building a site called Asheville Nightlife, which compiled food and drink specials, as well as major events in town.

“That really helped drive my entrepreneurial spirit in a lot of ways. The flexibility I was allowed and the freedom I was given showed me how important it is to see a task to completion,” he said. “I was able to see how a small team or individual can actually build an app or community.”

Conant also discovered a holistic approach to web design not only through his multimedia arts and sciences degree, but a philosophy course that examined important issues.

“We did a lot of reading in that class where when you fix one problem, you introduce another problem,” he said. “It was influential for me, this type of work, and getting interested in the ripple effect of introducing initiatives like these in the community.”

Asheville Music Guide (AMG) regularly meets with the Asheville Music Professionals group and other venue owners throughout the area to discuss their problems and ideas for effectively informing the Asheville community about the music scene.

“We’re happiest when we’re focused on the outcome and how this makes peoples’ lives easier and better,” Conant said. “It’s not so much about technical nitty-gritty details, and is more of a humanist view of technology.”

Many community members expressed their desires for kiosks downtown that would give show times and allow users to buy tickets, so Conant, Michel and Boylston set out to program and build the AMGiosk, Asheville's first touch-free, interactive live music kiosk. With prototypes rolling out this summer, by using the kiosk and a smart phone, tourists and locals alike will be able to discover music at some of Asheville’s most popular music spots.

As AMG expands and moves onto other applications of their technology, the company continues to be a labor of love for Boylston, Conant and Michel.

“This is something we built out of the passion and desire to exist,” Conant said.

Randi Janelle, '06

Since graduation, Randi Janelle ’06, has been working hard at making her ideas come to life. One of those ideas includes her first novel, “The Story: Deviation” released on Halloween of 2015. The story focuses on one big question, “What if?”

“What if you were transported to a time and space to learn the story of a person outside his or her stereotypes?” Janelle asks. “If you had to relive a series of moments, would you continue in habitual patterns, or would you deviate from them? Who’s is in control? Are you?”

Many factors of Janelle’s life contributed to the idea behind the book. It began in 2009, as part of National Novel Writing Month, or “nanowrimo,” a project where you write a novel in 30 days. She took full advantage of the liberal arts curriculum UNC Asheville offered, taking ideas and skills she learned in her Art major and combining them with subjects outside her field of study.

“The liberal arts package gave me a lot to work with because it exposed me to concepts outside my major,” Janelle said.

UNC Asheville’s International Student Association inspired her to travel overseas after graduation. She spent a year in Australia on a work visa and while there she started writing and performing poetry. Her experience inspired her work A Traveller’s Heart- Neither Here nor There, but the Sum of Its Parts, which pairs performance poetry with photography, first performed in Wellington, New Zealand. The show did so well, that upon her return to the US, she performed it in Santa Cruz, California.

She hopes to tour around the country with the show, letting people know that working abroad is an option. She performs poetry and readings regularly in asheville, and you can see when she performs next on her website.

In addition to writing and performing poetry, she is currently working on producing one of Asheville’s first escape rooms, Clocks and Locks. Growing in popularity around the country, escape games involve players willingly getting trapped in a room and must collaboratively solve puzzles in order to escape.

One of Janelle’s escape rooms draws on Asheville’s literature scene, including her own novel. The other room will focus on beer and other Asheville history.

Janelle provided a sample of what a scenario might look like: “You think that you’re going to a simple field trip. You’re on a bus. Maybe you’re in high school and there are these people who are your friends. Suddenly it is perpetually night. You’re now trapped inside the bus, and have to look around for clues and riddles, working together to find a way to escape.”

You can view more of her work at

Leigh Ann Henion '00

Searching for Wonder: Leigh Ann Henion '00

Natalie DeRatt

Leigh Ann Henion explored scientific mysteries, like the northern lights in Sweden, near the ice hotel shown above.

For Leigh Ann Henion, Phenomenal isn’t just the title of her newly published book. It’s a way to view the world around us anew.

Henion ’00 had worked as a travel writer and contributed to The Washington Post, Smithsonian, Orion, Oxford American and other publications. Phenomenal is a memoir detailing Henion’s “epic quest for wonder,” inspired by the new challenges presented by the birth of her son. Henion details her travels in six countries in rich detail, describing her observations of the Great Migration in Tanzania, bioluminescence in Puerto Rico, volcanic eruptions in Hawaii, and other amazing events. Through these journeys, Henion discovered the wonder her own son can show her and the freedom she has in parenting.

“I chased eclipses, migrations, and other phenomena around the globe to rekindle my own sense of wonder,” she said. “[The book] explores the way that pilgrimage changed the way I think about science, mythology, and what it even means to be human.”

Coming to terms with reinventing her role as a mother is also a challenge Henion faces in Phenomenal. While she travelled, her son often stayed with her husband or her parents. At first, her desires to adventure “were at odds with what I thought a mother was ‘supposed’ to do.” She then considered the potential double standards related to those who travelled for work.

“Growing up, I was taught that women could do anything. But, at the time I gave birth, my cultural perceptions of what it meant to be a ‘good’ mother were limited,” Henion said. “Could I leave on a work trip for a week or two at a time? This is a question some fathers might ask, but—when a mother's asking and it involves trips to the Serengeti and into everlasting lightning storms—this suddenly becomes provocative.”

Henion has been discovering different ways to fulfill her dreams since she was a student at UNC Asheville.  She created her own major, cultural studies, under the sociology department. Henion discovered how she could make her worldview and education unique by taking classes in anthropology, photojournalism, history and other areas.

“It wasn't so much what I learned as how I learned it,” Henion said. “UNC Asheville showed me that even within a large institution, individualization was possible and that nontraditional paths were acceptable and valuable.”

Henion, who also studied abroad multiple times, encourages current UNC Asheville students to figure out their own path from experiences and what they feel motivated to do.

“You have to follow your instincts, pursue your passions, take the classes that look most interesting in order to hone curiosity,” she advises. “Because it's your curiosity that's going to take you places you cannot see from here, places other people might not even want to go. But, if you're being true to your spirit, you'll end up exactly where you're supposed to be.”

Leigh Ann Henion’s first book, Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer's Search For Wonder in the Natural World, will be released on March 24 by Penguin Press. Learn more about her work at

Ko Barrett, '94

NOAA’s Ko Barrett elected vice chair of international climate science panel

Ko Barrett (left) joins Youba Sokana of Mali and Thelma Krug as IPCC vice chairs

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) elected NOAA’s Ko Barrett to serve as one of three vice chairs for the international body. The IPCC was created to review and assess the most recent scientific, technical, and socio-economic information produced worldwide that is relevant to the understanding of climate change.

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