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First Class Of Florida Polytechnic University Stepping Into New, Untested Waters

Choosing the right college or university is usually a big decision for most students, but choosing an untested one was an even bigger decision for Edison Collegiate High School Senior Natalie Ekdahl.

When she told her friends where she was going she says,  “most of them asked what it was, they’d never heard about it. But a few of them, they were excited about it and had heard good things about it too.”

Ekdahl will be one of 500 students who, this fall, will be the first to step onto the Lakeland home of Florida Polytechnic University. It is a school made up of one main building (still under construction) a yet to be completed dorm and unfinished wellness and admissions center.  With about 100 days to go before the first students set foot on campus, Florida Polytech is racing to the finish.

“The residence hall is ahead of schedule, the main innovation science and technology building is on schedule. We’ve a very tight schedule for the wellness center phase one, but we’re doing everything we can to make sure it will also be available,"says Florida Polytech's Chief Operating Officer, Ava Parker.

For the past two years, Parker has managed FPU's day-to-day operations. She stepped down from the State University System Governing board to take the job of COO . Parker says it hasn't been easy. For one, her job position isn’t like others at state schools.  When you’re building a campus from scratch—a regular 9-to-5 gig isn’t happening.

“It’s been a 24-7. It’s been the type of responsibility and undertaking that’s once in a lifetime, historic, extremely interesting," she says. "But it’s not the kind of thing you can ever leave because you're always thinking about it because it takes being very strategic in order to be successful.” 

Parker and other new Florida poly professors and administrators are literally building a dream. They’re creating from scratch degree programs that emphasize areas like magnetics, robotics, trying to give students like Natalie Ekdahl something new.

“I think it’s exciting," Ekdahl says. "I was the first class at my high school too so to kind of carry that on is exciting too. There will be a lot of opportunity for students to start things and I think our input will be really useful in deciding clubs and activities and stuff like that.”

Ekdhal plans to major in aeronautical engineering. She likes robotics and eventually wants to go to space, possibly work for NASA. A big question hanging over her future is whether she’ll graduate from an accredited university.

“I really haven’t planned on that. I’ll just roll with the punches," she says.

Parker says Florida Poly is steadily working toward earning that accreditation. In the meantime, it’s partnered with companies like Microsoft, Harris Corporation, and CSX to help form its curriculum and provide internships to its students. FPU officials are also trying to forge relationships with its public sister universities across the state to honor its credits.  It’s also reaching out to its biological parent: the University of South Florida. FPU was created two years ago when the legislature spun off USF’s Polytechnic program leaving broken relationships in its place.  Parker says things are better now.

“While there may have been some issues prior to the development of Florida Poly, I feel  really good about the fact we’re in a good place and have a good relationship with all our sister institutions, especially the University of South Florida," she says.

Florida Polytechnic University is trying to build a new, shiny high-tech future. Natalie says, she’s ready to help lay the groundwork for what the school may eventually become. 

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

This aerial photo shows Florida Polytechnic University's Lakeland campus in April 2014
Florida Polytechnic University /
This aerial photo shows Florida Polytechnic University's Lakeland campus in April 2014

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.
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