LAKELAND — Fifteen purple tassels swayed in the front row of white chairs. Onstage, in a purple robe, the president of Florida Polytechnic University took in the moment.
"I bet all of you remember your first visit to campus," Randy Avent said. He recalled closed-toed shoes, purple hard hats, and a mess of dirt from which, students were promised, a university would soon arise.
"Three years ago today, this was a construction zone," he said. "And the magnificent building we're gathered in today was best known for being the backdrop of a Dodge truck commercial."
To get to Tuesday's commencement, families wound along pristine roads lined with palms, past a few gleaming white buildings. The day was pale and bright, the campus a futuristic ghost town. Signs pointed the way to its centerpiece, the massive Innovation, Science and Technology building, where light poured through slatted skylights as if through a gigantic ribcage.
The last few years haven't been entirely smooth for the fledgling, STEM-centered institution, which rushed to open its doors after a contentious splintering from the University of South Florida in 2012. It still faces the hurdle of achieving accreditation.
But Poly's first class of students had seen past the drama of its creation, some drawn by free tuition, others by the chance to shape a new school. They'd taken the gamble.
In the afternoon light, this first crop of graduates straightened their caps and lined up to cross the stage.
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Since Poly's birth in 2012, its leaders have focused on the work of building Florida's first university dedicated to science, technology, engineering and math.
"You sit down and you've got a blank sheet of paper, and you say, 'Let me create a university,' " Avent said. "A lot of people don't realize … just how much you've got to do."
Set aside the issues of curricula and faculty recruitment. Think about stickers for faculty parking, choosing a school color, the little pieces that make up an institution.
"You draw up the architecture," Avent said, "then you realize, you didn't think of this, and you didn't think of that."
Benchmarks were to be met, dorms built and filled, students and faculty lured to campus. The state had laid out six mandates, such as building a 190-bed residence hall, to be completed by the end of 2016.
Poly checked off a box when it enrolled more than 1,300 students for its fall 2016 semester, a swift expansion from its initial class of 550. All that remains is accreditation, a final challenge before the university can pivot to shaping its future.
Initially expected to make a decision last year, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools said it couldn't get all of the needed information in so short a time frame.
Poly achieved candidacy last summer, and a SACS campus visit is set for February. A final decision likely won't be made until December 2017.
Accreditation would cover all graduates within the calendar year — including Tuesday's group.
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The inaugural class of graduates — four undergrads and 14 graduate students — represent a certain kind of student.
"Quite frankly, who in their right mind would go to a university that isn't accredited?" Avent said. "Especially when you're a good student who could go anywhere else?"
The answer, he said, is a risk-taker.
"Think about that freshman class that came in. There are no seniors to look up to. Nothing. No traditions, no history," said Steve Warner, vice provost of student affairs. "What do you do at graduation? Do you hang off the pergola? Do you jump in the lake? To me, that's yet to come."
Mechanical engineering graduate Gabriela Martines, 20, said she welcomed the malleability.
"My favorite part was being able to set those traditions, and being able to say to the next class, here's what you can expect," she said.
But that freedom came as a culture shock for others. Joshua Hayes, 25, a mechanical engineering graduate, had to petition university leaders for a chemistry class the school wasn't offering. Going to a school with so much unfinished, he said, could get frustrating.
"But we always say, you get what you pay for," he said with a laugh. "If we really saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and it wasn't going to be good, we wouldn't have stayed."
Poly's faculty continues to swell as students age into more advanced classes — a model Avent calls "just-in-time hiring." Most teach in technical, high-value disciplines. Because they can easily get jobs, Avent said Poly's lack of tenure isn't much of an issue.
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Now, Avent said, is when the fun begins.
Leaders have been collecting data about the curriculum to see where changes need to be made. Poly's hands are bound while seeking accreditation, but it can make tweaks after the all-clear.
"I would say we've got it 90 percent right on the undergrad and 80 percent right on the grad," Avent said.
One day, Poly might serve some 5,000 students. But, for now, momentum will likely slow in the range of 1,500 to 2,000 students, since the tiny campus has hit capacity.
"I think that Poly will essentially be a tech version of New College," Avent said, referring to the liberal arts and sciences school in Sarasota. Small and selective.
Challenges include developing programs to attract and retain female and minority students, as well as amping up the campus environment.
"Let's face it. We're a university sitting in the middle of a cow pasture," Avent said. "There's not a lot there."
And with less than two dozen new alumni, fundraising for such an expensive school will be a long-term trial.
"People feel strongly that universities should be more focused on jobs, economic development, a high-tech economy — and here is a university that is doing all of those things," Avent said. "We need to find people who are compelled to help us push that agenda."
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While some may have a bone to pick about the way Poly was created, Avent said, the hubbub is a footnote these days.
When USF Lakeland, later USF Polytechnic, outgrew its space, university leaders bought land in a former cow pasture off Interstate 4. The powerful state senator, JD Alexander, secured funding and a famed Spanish architect was brought on to create a huge, modern structure for classrooms and offices. It was to be a destination.
But whispers that USF Polytechnic should splinter into an independent, STEM-centric school soon turned into headline-grabbing drama, with Alexander leading the charge. The state Board of Governors conceded that Poly could split once certain benchmarks were met.
Then a last-minute bill slipped into the state budget negated all of that. Florida Polytechnic had been forcibly created.
Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill, hoping for a return on investment. USF turned over its Lakeland assets to the new school. Now Poly had to make something of itself.
Prospective students toured the dusty pasture in vans while tractors beeped and tour guides promised great things to come. A tuition deal for inaugural students made attendance practically free.
Many of those first students are now in their junior year. Some came to graduation Tuesday, whooping as graduates turned their tassels.
As the procession filed out, Pomp and Circumstance wound down, and We Are the Champions began to play.
Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321. Follow @clairemcneill.
Classes began: August 2014
Cost of attendance: $21,540*
Number of faculty: 78
Enrollment: 1,281 undergraduate; 31 graduate
Avg. high school test scores: 1672, SAT; 26, ACT
Avg. high school GPA: 3.78
* In-state costs for undergraduate tuition, fees, room and board, books, other expenses.
Source: Florida Polytechnic University