UCA’s interior design program gets boost with $5 million donation

Students walk across the University of Central Arkansas campus in Conway on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kyle McDaniel)
Students walk across the University of Central Arkansas campus in Conway on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kyle McDaniel)

The University of Central Arkansas has received a $5 million anonymous donation to support its Department of Art and Design.

The gift will allow the university to endow at least four named professorships in the interior design program with $4 million, while the remaining $1 million will be earmarked to expand internship and experiential learning opportunities for students, according to the university. Since 2016-17, enrollment has increased more than 40% in the interior design program.

"This very generous gift will be transformative for a growing program with a national reputation for high-quality and accomplished graduates," UCA President Houston Davis said in a news release Tuesday. "These funds will ensure the retention and recruitment of outstanding faculty and make certain that our students are placed in challenging and meaningful experiential learning opportunities."

Interior design is one of several UCA programs requiring all students to complete an internship prior to graduation, said Fredricka Sharkey, the university's director of media relations. She added that nearly 60 businesses across the state serve as internship partners for the interior design program.

"Our students already participate in a number of professional development opportunities, such as national conferences, community-based projects, and certification exams, [but] this gift will allow us to expand access to these kinds of real-world learning environments, which are invaluable to students as they prepare to begin their careers in interior design," Patricia Poulter, provost and executive vice president, said in the release. "We are grateful for this gift and what it will allow us to accomplish on behalf of the students."

In the same media statement, several graduates praised the program and said they look forward to its expansion with the donation.

"I knew interior design was such a hidden gem," said Amy Ling, a 2023 graduate who now works as an interior designer for Conway-based Miah Millan Interiors. "The program is very impressive, and I know the faculty work extremely hard to help the program grow."

Professors "truly treat you like you are a part of their family, and they really want to see you thrive and succeed," said Emily Flake, a 2021 graduate who opted into the program after meeting with interior design professors and now works at Evo Business Environments in Rogers. "They're very hands-on with helping students find internships and job opportunities."

Though many people think primarily of residential or commercial interior design, UCA's professors brought designers from different disciplines, such as hospitality design, lighting design and healthcare design, to the university to share their experiences, said Tia Curtis, a 2006 graduate who works in Georgia as principal designer for Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation. That demonstrated to students like her the vast array of "possibilities" within interior design.

As part of the interior design program, students learn drafting, calculating lighting for rooms, codes, building accessibility and much more, said Kionna Browning, an August 2022 graduate who works as an interior designer for Arkansas Children's Hospital. "I am glad donors are investing and looking more into interior design because it is one of the most important careers."

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