Leaping Ahead: Samantha Walls ’12 on running a neighborhood day care center

Walls at the Leaps Ahead open house in November 2015.

The Leaps Ahead Learning Center currently makes its home in one corner of the former Ascension School in Arbutus, a large, sand-colored 1960s-era structure where pictures of Jesus and Mary still line the corridors. It’s a small business in a big building with an even bigger ambition behind it, and that’s courtesy of Samantha Schene Walls ’12, psychology, the young owner and director of Leaps Ahead.

“I don’t ever stop doing things,” Walls says in Ascension’s front office one bright, chilly spring morning. “I’m one of those people [who says], ‘Ok, this is done, now what can we do next?’”

Walls, who took classes year-round at UMBC while holding down a full-time job as a preschool teacher, says this is only the beginning, and that she plans to expand Leaps Ahead to other locations in the area.

The newest incarnation of Leaps Ahead is its second, having begun as a small center in the basement of Walls’ home. She’d started her own business after working in a commercial child care center for several years, and she soon found that the demand for an affordable neighborhood day care was high. People kept calling, and “I was maxed out [on spaces] within two weeks,” she says.

Walls attended Ascension for elementary school, and when the space became vacant, she met with the archdiocese, signed a lease in September, and got to work. She and her husband Erik Walls ’13, geography and environmental systems, spent two months’ worth of nights and weekends fixing the place up before opening the doors to her first class in November, and by the following April, what started out as about a dozen children in her care had ballooned into the thirties.

“We’ve more than doubled,” she says. “It’s been fantastic.”

Walls says she wears many hats as the director for Leaps Ahead. She does the billing, the payments, the hiring and staffing, and she’s been planning field trips for the summer. As word spreads in the community about the day care center, she’s given more and more tours to prospective Leaps Ahead families.

She also tries to step in and help the teachers whenever she can, having been in their shoes herself once. She’ll help make meals for the kids, or take over a class for a while so the teacher can take a lunch break. “I don’t want to be an absentee [manager],” she says.

Walls tries to bring a personal touch to every aspect of her business, and emphasizes the “home away from home” character of Leaps Ahead. The key word here seems to be home: she herself grew up in Arbutus, coming through Catholic schools here, and says that her “fantastic” first grade teacher at Ascension made her want to work with children.

“We’re very close with all the families[, and] they all have my personal cell phone number,” she says.

Parents are free to stay with their children during the day here, and many do. Some of Walls’ charges have included the children of UMBC staff members. Some of these kids have been with Walls since (literally) the very beginning, children who were babies when she was still at her first teaching job. She’s now working with the younger siblings of some of her first graduates. She’s getting to watch them grow up.

In the three-and-four-year-old classroom on this spring morning, a small group of children sits coloring in the middle of the room. Walls pokes her head in to introduce all of them, but one little girl seems to have a pressing matter for her to attend to.

“Miss Sam! Miss Sam! Miss Sam!” she pipes up, and Miss Sam asks what the matter is.

“I love you,” the girl says.

— Julia Celtnieks ’13

Have you started your own business since graduating? We want to hear from you! Head to Retriever Stories to share your experience.

High Stocks: Caleb Heidel ’15 on his overnight Internet fame

The photo in question, shot by Blair Connolly.

From superheroes to Hannah Montana, the “double life” story has been a touchstone in American popular culture, and Caleb Heidel ’15, graphic design, is one more addition to that pantheon. In real life, the recent UMBC graduate is a designer for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, working on business communications and, as he puts it, “making the science look sexy.”

But on the internet, thanks to one fateful shoot in Old Ellicott City, Heidel is the subject of a stock photo that’s appeared alongside a diverse array of online content. According to a recent Retriever Weekly profile of Heidel, a reverse Google image search turns up countless uses of his plaid-shirted likeness, everywhere from stock photo sites to Christian dating blogs.

“I had no intentions of this happening,” Heidel says, but when a friend from UMBC’s Campus Crusade for Christ (CRU) needed models for her grad school portfolio, he agreed to help.

“One of the photos she snapped while I wasn’t looking, she posted to Flickr, for free, full resolution,” says Heidel. A few months later, the storm began.

He can remember the exact moment he learned of his internet fame: he was studying when one of his friends posted a link to a blog post bearing the image on his Facebook wall, asking if it was Heidel. Later that night, a different friend asked the same question…about a completely different post that used the photo.

“It was ridiculous. [I didn’t sleep much] that night because it was just so hilarious,” he says. “I kept Googling myself [and] seeing all these hits of my photo.

“It’s just like this thing that was growing that I had no idea was there until months later, until suddenly it just exploded.”

He’s found some of the associations made to his face flattering, like this one ranking the top 11 countries with the hottest guys. That article casts Heidel as Mr. Canada, much to his amusement: “I beat out Justin Bieber, because they clearly could have put him on there, but they put me instead. So that’s a win.”

Others, he says, are just plain “strange.” He’s less than thrilled, for instance, about having his face attached to an article on meth addiction, something he says doesn’t represent him at all.

Responses from Heidel’s friends and family are split, generationally speaking. His younger friends, the ones who grew up on the internet and know meme culture inside and out, have provided whole folders’ worth of Photoshopped images of his face, which graces, among others, a be-sweatered Drake in the “Hotline Bling” video, a shark’s mouth, and a very sad-looking banana. (Heidel himself has even joined in on the tomfoolery.)

Older people in his life have a more dour outlook on the situation, expressing concern for his safety and future career prospects, or annoyance over the free use of his likeness. The photo was posted under a Creative Commons license, so Heidel “[hasn’t] seen a single penny” from its use.

Worries aside, Heidel says he’s more amused than aggrieved by it all. “It fulfills this secret desire in me to be famous and be in the spotlight,” he says, “so it’s been fun for that reason.”

Julia Celtnieks ’13

Ever had a brush with fame? Tell us about it on our new Retriever Stories site!


Watch Live: Supporting Students in Baltimore and Beyond

This Thursday, April 14, from 6-8 p.m. join NBC News and WBAL-TV for a live forum, “Supporting Our Students: It Takes Everyone.” UMBC alumnus Joseph T. Jones, Jr. ‘06, social work, founder, president, and CEO of Center for Urban Families will be participating in a panel called “Parents are Powerful,” discussing parental engagement and the ways in which Baltimore City and County are aiming to increase parent involvement. You can participate in live Facebook chats with the panelists.

The forum is a project of Parent Toolkit, an online, interactive resource for parents to help them “navigate their child’s journey from pre-kindergarten through high school.” Full of tips and guides, as well as growth charts and expert advice, it’s a place for parents to stay involved in their children’s education.

This special event takes place at the Baltimore Museum of Art and will be moderated by Rehema Ellis, NBC News Chief Education Correspondent, along with Dr. Tim Tooten, WBAL-TV Education Reporter.

Make sure to tune in live via parenttoolkit.com on Thursday and spread the word using #SOSevery1.

Meet the Staff: Leanna Powell ’08, Assistant Director of Annual Giving

Here in the Office of Alumni Relations, we focus a lot on our wonderfully supportive alums — after all, it is in our name. However, we’ve decided to turn the tables and take time to get to know the people behind the scenes – the  advancement and alumni relations staff members who are hard at work on behalf of our alumni. Today we’re talking with Leanna Powell ’08, English, who recently returned to UMBC as our assistant director of annual giving.

Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11.

Name: Leanna Powell

Job Title: Assistant Director of Annual Giving

Focus Area: Student philanthropy, crowdfunding, direct mail

Years at UMBC: .5 as staff, 4 as a student

Grad Year: 2008

Where are you from originally? I grew up in southern Maryland near D.C., but I consider myself a Baltimore gal now after 10+ years in the city.

What do you love most about UMBC? In a city so packed with higher ed institutions, UMBC feels like a well-kept secret. The campus is serene, the people are sweet and low-key, and yet you see student and alumni achievements popping up all over the state in the arts, research sciences, and public policy. Light City is a great example — I’m excited to get to rep for my college at the Inner Harbor.

What’s your favorite thing about your job? I majored in writing, but immediately got swept up by nonprofit work, so I’m glad to have the chance to put all of my professors’ hard work to good use (shoutouts to Chris Corbett, Jody Shipka and Orianne Smith!). I have also spent a lot of time working with student philanthropy on the nonprofit beneficiary side, so I’m glad to get the chance to apply that experience in helping Retrievers fundraise for their own amazing projects through our campus crowdfunding site.

Who do you admire and why? Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are two of my biggest idols. To me, they represent a generation of women who are comfortable being smart, funny, and supportive of one another — and aren’t afraid to speak up or to take criticism.

Have you ever done anything crazy or out of the ordinary? Now that we’re in short-sleeves weather, some of the first things people notice about me are my tattoos. Most of them have a lot of personal significance, but I did get one on impulse one afternoon with a friend — matching dinosaurs, to remind us not to take ourselves too seriously.

Tell us what you loved most about UMBC on Retriever Stories!


Alums in the News: Suess, Dzirasa, Ritter, Hyman

Here at UMBC, we take pride in what our alumni accomplish after graduation, whether it’s on-campus or off. Take a look at some engineering and IT alums who have made the news recently!

suess4Jack Suess ’81, information systems, and M.S. ’95, operations analysis, UMBC’s chief information officer, praised Baltimore-based mobile replacement startup Fixt, which has just received $1.4 million from angel investors. Fixt provides an online platform for large-scale institutions to troubleshoot mobile device problems, and the process usually takes less than an hour, start to finish. Suess says that adopting the Fixt system has saved the university money and time that would otherwise have been spent on mobile-related issues.

Delali DzirasaDelali Dzirasa ’04, computer engineering, talked with CSO Online about his career path, and offered students advice on how to network within the cybersecurity and IT fields. Dzirasa, a 2011 Alumni Award honoree, started his company, Fearless Solutions, in 2009. “Stay hungry,” he says to young infosec professionals. “There is no shortage of opportunities. Keep learning. Security is one of those interesting things. There are a million ways to get in, and you can’t defend all of them.”

ritterSarah Ritter ’06, information systems, and M.S. ’11, information systems, is now in graduate school for mobile development at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. WILMA Magazine recently interviewed her for an article on women in Wilmington’s burgeoning tech sector, and she had this to say about teamwork: “I might not be the best driver, but I am an excellent parallel parker. You don’t have to be good at everything…You should learn how to do as much as possible to work well on a team, but you don’t have to be the best at everything to be a great asset on a technical team.”

mojoeJoseph Hyman ’11, mechanical engineering, first came up with the idea for a self-brewing coffee mug during a long night in the AOK Library. Today, his MoJoe Brewing Co. has garnered over $85,000 in Kickstarter pledges. Tired college students – or anyone who wants a hot cup of coffee or tea on demand – just fill the mug with water, add their preferred beverage base, adjust the strength settings, and have a warm cup of study support within minutes. “It’s exciting that after years of building a product, people actually want it. And that there’s a demand for it…It makes the sleepless nights worth it,” Hyman says.

Head to Retriever Stories to let us know where you are now!

Career Q&A: Shalonda Holt ’07, biological sciences

Every once in a while, we’ll chat with an alum about what they do and how they got there. Today, we’re catching up with Shalonda Holt ’07, biological sciences, a biology teacher at Centennial High School and the Howard County Teacher of the Year for 2016. She tells us more about her innovative teaching methods and how she decided to enter the education profession below.


You are known for incorporating a flipped classroom model into your teaching. For those who are unfamiliar, what does a flipped classroom look like, and how does a typical lesson work? [In a flipped classroom, students] watch online lectures at home once or twice a week. The videos are five to fifteen minutes long. At school, the class is more student-centered. Students work with their peers to apply the content they learned at home. [In a typical class, students] will have a drill question to answer. During this time, I am collecting and checking the students’ notes from the previous night. Next, we will go over the drill. Since there is no lecture the rest of the class may be a lab, project, discussion, [et cetera]. It just really depends on the day.

How did you decide you wanted to teach?  I loved playing “school” when I was a little girl. During my sophomore year at UMBC, I decided that teaching was truly my passion.

How did it feel to be recognized as Howard County Teacher of the Year, and what’s the next step?  I was extremely honored because this was based on the recommendation of my colleagues and students. I just felt incredible knowing that I am able to have an impact on people. The next step is to apply for Maryland Teacher of the Year.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give an incoming UMBC student? Follow YOUR passion. I knew I had a passion for biology but I felt that everyone wanted me to become a doctor. I quickly realize that was not my dream but that teaching was. As my grandmother always would tell me, you want to find a career that you want, not one that you are forced to have.

Tell us where you are today on Retriever Stories!


Alums in the News: Christos Palios ’02 named a finalist for the Sondheim Prize

Christos Palios ’02, visual and performing arts, a fine art photographer “whose work probes ideas and aspects of identity, memory, and isolation within urban, industrial, and natural spaces,” is a finalist for the 11th Annual Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize. Palios’ work can be found in public and private collections all over the country, and has appeared in such online publications as F-Stop Magazine and Dotphotozine. The award is designed to support artists working in the Greater Baltimore area, and the winner, to be announced July 9 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, will receive a $25,000 fellowship to further their career.

UMBC community members who were semifinalists for the prize include Marian Glebes, M.F.A. ’09, intermedia and digital arts; Jason Hughes, M.F.A. ’15, intermedia and digital arts; Vincent Carney ’06, visual arts; Ben Marcin ’80, economics; and Lynn Cazabon, associate professor of visual arts. Congratulations to all of this year’s nominees!

“B6771: Ioannina, Greece” by Christos Palios, 2014. The photographer has said that his work focuses on “the hushed and unpeopled facets of society.”

Tell us your news in a class note!