Dakota Wood hopped out of a van and peered through purple shades that said FLORIDA POLY on the side. He considered the mammoth monolith that towered from Interstate 4 like the chest cavity of a whale.
Wood, a violinist for most of his 18 years, had passed by it before. He thought it looked like Australia's Sydney Opera House. But at a school fair in Kissimmee, a recruiter told him the opera house was actually a new college called Florida Polytechnic University. Wood's interests had expanded past music into engineering, and the school would cater to people like him. And, it could be virtually free for him to go there.
He scheduled a tour.
Choosing a college is an academic choice, but also a visceral one. So what happens when your campus is not yet built, when there are no aged brick buildings, no quads, no students tossing Frisbees down a field? As Florida Polytechnic races to open in August, the challenge for staff is giving students a vision for something they cannot yet fully see.
Wood plopped a purple hard hat on his head. He pulled out his phone and snapped a photo of the school in progress.
• • •
Florida Polytechnic sprang from something with roots.
It was the University of South Florida Lakeland, later USF Polytechnic. It opened in 1988 on Polk Community College's Lakeland campus. By the 2000s, university leaders claimed to have outgrown the space.
They secured a plot off I-4 in Polk County big enough to fit the Magic Kingdom, and with the help of powerful Sen. J.D. Alexander, got state funding for the new campus. Santiago Calatrava, a Spanish architect who has designed the World Trade Center Transportation Hub and Brazil's Museum of Tomorrow, was tapped in 2009 to create a huge contemporary dwelling to house classrooms and lecture halls. Former chancellor Marshall Goodman spoke of creating a destination campus on par with the innovation of Walt Disney World.
All the while, talk simmered of USF Polytechnic wanting independence. Eventually, the discussion boiled over into full-blown political theater.
Alexander announced in 2011 that, "I believe USF Polytech needs to be Florida Polytech, a university in itself." It wasn't just an idea. He had backing from about 30 Polk County business and civic leaders.
Critics said Alexander and Goodman, who was later ousted amid inquiries into spending, were conspiring to hold USF hostage. Others said Florida actually needed a separate institution for science, technology, math and engineering.
Florida's Board of Governors, which oversees the state's universities, decided to let the school split when it met benchmarks, including enrollment goals and accreditation. But at the last second, a bill slipped into the budget changed the approach, immediately creating Florida Polytechnic.
Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill, saying it would "generate a positive return on investment." Florida Polytechnic was born July 1, 2012. USF turned over all Lakeland assets to the state's new university, including reserve money, property, licenses and contracts.
Florida Polytechnic was real. And after all the political volleying and vitriol, everyone was watching for the new university to meet expectations.
• • •
The goal was 500 students in classes by August 2014.
Work moved fast because it had to. The first professor, research chemist Robert MacCuspie, came on board in June. Florida Polytechnic formed multiple partnerships with technology industries, hoping to create a pipeline of jobs and internships for students.
Construction went on almost every day. By Dec. 4, the campus was ready, at least somewhat, to show off. Reporters were invited to see the 5,000-square-foot, $1 million admissions center, the first building open to the public. They took hard-hat tours of the 162,000-square-foot, $60 million Innovation, Science and Technology Building designed by Calatrava to hold all the labs, classrooms, offices and a common area.
Outside the admissions center, interim chief Ava Parker addressed cameras. She stood flanked by a staff clad in the school color, purple.
"We know it's coming and it's happening," Parker said. "But there's something about being able to walk on campus, and walk into a building where we can actually have our staff in place. We can greet families. We can show students what our campus is going to be like. So it becomes very real. …
"What we're building is not ordinary," she continued. "And it's not every day you get to build Florida's 12th state university."
Garage doors flew open behind her to reveal the admissions center, with a scaled-down model of the campus, TV screens and robots that wheeled up to greet guests.
The staff gathered again a week later to cut a giant purple ribbon outside the admissions center, joined by J.D. Alexander.
• • •
The main building is an architectural feat, with vertical columns that bring in light and reflect water from surrounding ponds. It has an operable roof made of 94 aluminum louvers that flap to create shade. It's designed to be energy efficient and spacious. Staffers' offices are small and student areas are big.
The result is a modern foil to the archetype of an ivy-clad university, an antithesis to the name-brand alternatives students already have. USF and the University of Central Florida are within an hour's drive of Florida Polytechnic. They have histories spanning decades, reputations, rankings, traditions, clubs, sports teams, mascots.
They have something else Florida Polytechnic doesn't have: accreditation. Florida Polytechnic won't be able to get it until it graduates a class, likely in 2016. Until then, it can't offer federal financial aid.
Knowing this, Florida Polytechnic's board of trustees in August approved a scholarship program to get students in the door.
Full-time undergraduates will get $5,000 per year for the first three years and $3,200 for the fourth year, covering most of the $5,029 in annual tuition and fees. Graduate students get $9,300 per year for two years toward their yearly tuition and fees of $11,462.
Recruiters have been hosting "Poly Premiere" events at movie theaters around the state, handing out free popcorn and sodas during the 35-minute Florida Polytechnic promotional video. They've sent email blasts and visited almost every high school in the state, issuing the pitch:
Come to Poly. Be part of something new.
"One of the most challenging things, for me and for the recruiters, is trying to explain Florida Poly as a brand new entity, and as an active construction site, trying to get everyone else to feel the way we feel about it," said admissions director Beth Pierpont. "Yes, it's going to be open in the fall. Yes, everything is going to be ready for you. Yes, we're really excited about it."
Counselors give tours to prospective students 15 times a week. Since September, according to school officials, more than 5,800 people have inquired and more than 1,900 have applied. Florida Polytechnic has accepted almost 350 students.
They're looking for the best and brightest, Pierpont said. The minimum GPA to be considered is 3.0. The minimum SAT score is 550 on each section, and the minimum ACT score is 22. So far, selected students have exceeded those numbers.
Students can take classes for their majors while taking general requirements, Pierpont said. They won't have to wait years to specialize.
And students will control their campus life. They can go online and vote for what they'd most like to see on campus, between a soccer or football field, a swimming pool, a sand volleyball or basketball court or a Frisbee golf course. They can be founders of clubs.
That plus the free money forms an alluring package for students like Emily Mason, 17, accepted to study engineering at Florida Polytechnic. She chose it over Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, UCF and the University of Florida.
"Poly is brand new," she said. "We get to really shape the school and everything. When we toured there not too long ago, everyone there was so excited. The only downside is my mom wanted to buy me something for Christmas with the motto or the mascot."
In December, a set of tables appeared in the admissions center holding purple mugs, hats, and those ubiquitous symbols of school pride, the thing that, in college, equals existence:
• • •
Richard Truncale drove the van through dusty paths, families peering out the windows.
"When you guys start classes in August, the whole road is going to be paved," said the admissions counselor. "It's not going to look like a gigantic dirt mess. So everything will be paved, it'll be nice and clean, you'll have your Florida Poly entrance, trees will be planted, grass will be here. It's going to be really nice for you guys."
Truncale took them to a plot, and over the constant beeping of cranes and tractors spoke of four-bedroom dorm suites, of WiFi stretching so far students can use Facebook by the ponds. He spoke of food trucks and applied research and small classes and possibility.
"We're going to have student life for you guys," he said. "And it's actually being worked on nonstop."
The school was untested, yes, but Dakota Wood's parents looked at it another way. At this gestational stage, no one can rest on laurels.
"They're still trying," said Jeff Wood. "That's the way I think of it. No one is comfortable yet."
Dakota didn't have a backup plan if he didn't get in, other than community college and reapplying in two years. He'd shown friends renderings of the building. They thought it was so cool. They thought he was a rogue.
The families grabbed free Poly cups and pens and settled around a floor-to-ceiling screen to watch a video with larger-than-life icons beckoning them to "be the next."
Henry Flagler. Walt Disney. You at Florida Polytechnic.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394.