Jennifer Karen Smith Costume Award honors the memory of beloved School of Theatre + Dance professor, UF Online early adopter & Center for Teaching Excellence director
Jennifer Karen Smith (September 24, 1962 – September 8, 2022) brought light into the life of every person whose path she crossed—a light that looked a little different for everyone, depending on the context in which they knew her—but who all agree continues to shine even in her absence.
“I frequently describe Jennifer as someone who turned everything she touched into gold,” says Angela Lindner, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Affairs. “Her creativity, which undoubtedly bolstered her success in her chosen profession of costume design, spilled over into all that she did. She was filled with a desire to make UF better for faculty and students.”
One year ago this month, Jennifer passed away peacefully after a year-long battle with cancer, just a few weeks shy of her 60th birthday. Her colleagues and loved ones note that throughout the course of her life, Jennifer wore many hats—and not just in the costume studio!
During her 30+ years of service at the University of Florida, where she started in 1990 as an assistant professor teaching Costume Construction Technology, Jennifer served in several roles, ultimately ascending to the position she held at the time of her passing as the director of the UF Center for Teaching Excellence.
Costume designer, teacher, tech whiz, trailblazer
Jennifer received her bachelor’s degree in Communication and Theatre Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 1984 before relocating to Minneapolis, Minn., where she began her “first career” in costume technology as a stitcher at the Guthrie Theatre. She also built costumes for Prince at his PRN Productions Studios, also in Minneapolis, before attending graduate school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill where she completed her Master of Fine Arts in Technical Theatre/Theatre Design and Technology in 1990.
Shortly after completing her MFA, she relocated to Florida for a teaching position at UF School of Theatre + Dance. Throughout the 1990s, Jennifer rose through the academic ranks to achieve tenure in the role of associate professor. During these years, she also supervised costume construction, rental, crafts and maintenance for all UF SOTD theatre productions as the Costume Shop Director—a sum total that SOTD Publicist, Archivist and House Manager, Colleen Davoli, says adds up to more than 175 different theatre and dance productions! Jennifer also served as SOTD’s Coordinator of Design from Fall 1997 to Spring 2003.
November 20, 2023
Jennifer remained active in costume design throughout her life, sometimes constructing costumes for theatre productions at the Hippodrome, and for her colleague and friend, late UF Professor of Dance, Ric Rose, who passed away in 2017.
“My hope, now, is that they are creating together somewhere beyond this reality,” says Ric’s widow, Isa Garcia Rose.
She adds: “when I lost my husband, Jen reached out to me and honored Ric by assisting with a beautiful video for his celebration of life. The list goes on to what an incredible human being, teacher, and friend Jen was … Thank you, Jen, for helping us bring our dances to life. You will always be in my heart.”
In the early 2000s, Jennifer’s “second career” began to emerge as she became one of the early adopters of online teaching (what would eventually become UF Online) at the University of Florida.
Her knack for software instructional programming led to an intermission from her time at UF: a few years after earning tenure, she resigned from her teaching role to accept a position on the board of PatternMaker Software, where she oversaw programming and quality control. A fateful visit to UF campus, where she ran into a former UF Online colleague who told her about an open position as Instructional Designer, facilitated her return to the university—and the rest is history.
A series of promotions eventually led Jennifer to the role of director of the UF Center for Teaching Excellence, where she also volunteered as a Student Success Coach—roles that her colleagues and mentee say she remained deeply committed to, even through her illness, until the very end.
Administrator, leader, tireless cheerleader and mentor
Dr. W. Andrew “Andy” McCollough, who retired this summer from 55+ years at UF culminating in a longtime role as Associate Provost for Teaching and Technology, oversaw the creation of UF Online to which he says Jennifer Karen Smith was instrumental.
“Jennifer introduced me to the art of online production and convinced me that excellence in teaching did not depend on modality,” McCollough says. Reflecting on his colleague’s remarkable sense of service and dedication, McCollough adds:
“Jennifer lived and treasured her life in ways that will inform the dark hours that may come my way. Until the day she no longer could, she dedicated time to her family, to others … to her passion, to the Center for Teaching Excellence. When I am tempted to complain about an ache or pain, Jennifer whispers to me, ‘give until you can’t, and the world will be better for it.’ She did not want to take over the world; she just wanted to make the world better—and she did. And she does.”
Associate Provost for Undergraduate Affairs, Angela Lindner, echoes McCollough’s sentiments and admiration for their late colleague’s enduring spirit and leadership style.
“I do believe she provided us all a model of strength in vulnerability, even in her last days when she suffered so much,” Lindner says.
“She was small in stature, with a voice that did not control a room based on traditional standards; however, when she spoke in meetings, people listened. She taught me that a good leader is not one who dominates or grabs power but, rather, takes the time needed to serve and to build up people and connections, thus empowering them to far greater, more sustainable outcomes. To me, celebrating Jennifer and her life celebrates this gentler, kinder, more effective form of leadership through cooperation and not domination … Quiet service for the good of others—this was Jennifer K. Smith.”
For undergraduate student Ashiana Ndandou, who Jennifer mentored as a Success Coach in the 2021-2022 academic year, their relationship felt too short; bittersweet—but life-changing in the scope of its positive outcomes on Ndandou’s education.
“Jennifer Smith was my Success Coach starting in the Fall of 2021 here at the University of Florida, but she was so much more than that. She was a mentor to me, and a friend,” Ndandou says.
“She was so patient and kind. She always wanted the best for me, and she wanted to make sure that whenever our next meeting was—she wanted it to be convenient for me. Right after our first meeting, she sent me an email with encouragement. She also sent resources that could help me. Even though I know that a Success Coach wants the student to succeed—I could tell she would go above and beyond for me … What I admire about her the most was that even when she was sick, she was still willing to help me with my struggles and hardships. I’ll never forget how she fought for me.
I just remember feeling so loved and blessed to have her in my life. The fact that she wanted to be my Success Coach for another semester was amazing and it made me feel special. I recently graduated on May 6, 2023, and I know she would be proud. And if she could, I know she would have been there.”
On the cycling trail, at home, and in her garden: a life lived to the fullest
In both her professional and personal spheres, Jennifer Karen Smith seized every moment she had to do something good and to nourish her passions—of which she had many.
She cared deeply about her craft as a costume designer, about her students, about the quieter aspects of service and excellence that are sometimes easy to overlook in an institution as large as the University of Florida, and about the world itself—right down to the small pleasures of the butterfly garden that her husband, Will, says she maintained into her final days at their home in Micanopy.
Jennifer was an avid explorer whose favorite way to experience the world was moving through the breeze on the seat of her bicycle. She was a frequent cyclist on the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail. She also traveled north every summer, to Pennsylvania and Maryland to ride the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Canal Towpath. A wrist condition that prevented her from bearing weight on the handlebars of a traditional bicycle did not slow Jennifer down—instead, she switched over to a unique recumbent-style cycle and continued to hit the trails.
“That bike is weird! It got her a lot of attention on the trail because people would see her and go ‘what the heck is that?’” Mr. Smith recalls.
“I’ve pulled it out of the garage and tried to ride it since she left, but I just couldn’t figure out how to make it go. I’m used to a bike where you put your weight on the pedals—but when you’re leaning back, whew, then you’ve really got to use your muscles,” he says.
Mr. Smith also notes that his wife was an animal lover, and that throughout their years together, they counted several generations of rescue dogs and cats as family—most recently, Amy and Misty, a pair of kittens the couple adopted last summer.
In her spare time, Jennifer maintained a vegetable garden and delighted in making “garden-to-table” meals. Near the end of her life, she nurtured monarch butterflies in a container garden filled with milkweed, moving the containers into a special enclosure to protect the chrysalises and releasing the butterflies when they emerged.
School of Theatre + Dance scholarship honors Jennifer Karen Smith’s legacy
The School of Theatre + Dance at UF College of the Arts established the Jennifer Karen Smith Costume Award in 2023.
“Jennifer lived a full life that included gardening, cycling, a stint making costumes for Prince, and one of her most important roles: serving students. Because of her impactful life, the University of Florida community would like to memorialize her legacy by creating an endowed scholarship in her name. The scholarship will honor Jennifer’s extensive work in the costume design and production industry and support students studying costume design,” says Joshlyn Thomas, Assistant Director of Development, UF College of the Arts.
Honoring Jennifer Karen Smith’s Legacy
An endowed fund will ensure Jennifer Karen Smith’s legacy of costuming, teaching, and giving back exists in perpetuity. Once endowment status is reached, the scholarship will be open to future costume designers. Every gift counts!
Make a gift in Jennifer’s honor, here.
If you would like to make a gift through a pledge or legacy gift, please contact Joshlyn Thomas, Assistant Director of Development in the College of the Arts, at email@example.com or 803-351-7539.