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Part Tribute, Part Message of Hope

The story behind ‘Dear Preview 2020’

A warm embrace — that’s what Preview was to Sarah Mendonca the summer between high school and her freshman year. The upperclassmen who took time to welcome the fledgling new Gators to the next episode in their lives made a big impression on her. So much so that in her sophomore year Mendonca (BA ’96, Ph.D. ’01) herself became a member of Preview’s student team.

“It was such an honor to serve UF in this way, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be and more,” she says almost 30 years later. “It was so rewarding to know that we were helping new Gators at the beginning of their journey. I learned so much from being part of such a great team of dedicated, positive, caring people.”

Matt Swartzlander (BS ’96), who this spring lost his fight with cancer, was one of those people.

The YouTube video Mendonca created is part tribute to him and part message of hope to this year’s Preview staff, which is using virtual orientations to guide the university’s 7,000 new students into a fall semester like none other because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

News of Swartzlander’s death motivated those who knew him best at UF to reconnect through a long overdue Zoom mini-reunion, Mendonca says, and convinced her to produce the video for the 2020 team.

“As we reminisced together, I kept thinking about how different it would be for this year’s staff,” she explains. “So the inspiration came from a reunion that sprang from the loss of a dear friend.”

A consultant and educational coach in Virginia, she collected group photos of each of the previous 45 Preview classes and strung them together in the video for the newest UF ambassadors. The video’s closing words: “Thank you for carrying the torch and allowing its light to shine brightly. Times may change, but one thing has stayed the same: ‘It’s Great to be a Florida Gator!’”

“When I reflected on how challenging it would be for this year’s staff to adapt to an online delivery format — and when I considered how much disappointment they would feel as a result — it occurred to me that they might feel encouraged by a message from their predecessors,” Mendonca says. “While I was a staffer, I remember alumni dropping by throughout the summer, and it was so affirming to see that they were still interested and engaged. So I had a sense that this could give them a boost right before their first session.”

After all, Gators always stick together, she insists, even during a pandemic as serious as the coronavirus.

“What gives me strength and purpose at times like this,” Mendonca says, “is asking myself: ‘What can I do to be helpful? How can I contribute? What gifts do I have to offer?’ Each of us has some skill, some talent, some ability that we can share. Even if that’s simply showing that we care.”

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Watch ‘Dear Preview 2020’