ST. PETERSBURG — Andrea Nguyen has everything laid out for her first year of college.
The 18-year-old from Sarasota has a perfectly coordinated sea foam green and gold dorm room, an elliptical to stay fit while she studies, a new job at a nearby modeling agency and a clear goal of graduating with a job as a psychologist.
The only thing she isn't so sure about is the university she's chosen as the springboard to making her dreams a reality — the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
“I don't really know anybody here. I haven't been to the campus before and I really chose this school randomly just based on rankings and pictures,” Nguyen said. “It's a little nerve racking thinking that I'm going to spend the next few years at a school I just kind of picked out of a hat and don't really know that much about, but so far it seems pretty small and friendly.”
For Nguyen and 560 other freshmen, a majority of whom spent Sunday night moving into their dorms, the fall semester will be spent finding their place in USF St. Petersburg's student body. The university will be doing some self discovery as well as Sophia Wisniewska takes over the position of regional chancellor this year and students spearhead new initiatives.
Most students agree that one of the most noticeable changes is the atmosphere around campus.
“I've seen USF become more of a system in the past three years than I've seen at any other school with regional campuses,” said USF St. Petersburg Student Body President Mark Lombardi-Nelson. “We know students in Tampa by name now instead of just living in our own separate worlds, and once you connect the students you really connect the schools. We're not letting the bridge be a barrier anymore.”
As a sign of the times, students from USF Tampa and USF Sarasota-Manatee were invited to participate in USF St. Petersburg's cardboard boat race during this year's Week of Welcome — a string of events and activities during the first week of classes to ease students back into school. The race in the adjacent Bayboro Harbor is one of the university's oldest traditions, Lombardi-Nelson said, and this year traditions will be heavily emphasized to give students “the real college experience.”
For years, the USF regional campuses have had the reputation of being “commuter campuses” lacking in student involvement, said 19-year-old senior Amanda Tuttle, of Clearwater. But that sentiment is quickly changing with help from new student-led committees like the Homecoming Traditions Board, and events like the university's first 5K run.
“We're still a big commuter campus, but now you're starting to see more USF signs in places downtown,” Tuttle said. “Our waterfront is a big seller, and it seems like we're growing and getting some recognition.”
USF St. Petersburg was named one of U.S. News and World Report's “Best Regional Public Universities in the South” for 2013.. New bull statues and buildings dot the campus, and for the first time the university's homecoming week will include a concert — once students decide who to book with their $50,000 budget.
The new regional chancellor and other officials will spend the year coming up with a new five-year strategic plan that will really shape “who we are and what we want to be,” said university spokesman Tom Scherberger.
But much of that direction will be up to the fresh-faced freshmen that walked across the ballroom of the year-old University Student Center Sunday night to receive a green and gold tassel from Wisniewska; a sort of practice run for when all hopefully graduate from USF St. Petersburg in 2017.
And with the Dali Museum and the Mahaffey Theater only steps away from campus, and more than 40 local businesses offering student discounts, Lombardi-Nelson said the university and the community have really focused on retaining more students for their entire college experience. The first student to do so graduated in 2002, though the campus opened in 1965.
Your first year you get to explore a little bit, you go to a party at UF or FSU and you check out places you could transfer to, but you realize it's not like here,” Lombardi-Nelson said. “No where's like here. We fell in love.”