The University of Florida Innovation Academy is truly a signature program. Focused on teaching students creativity, ethics, entrepreneurship and leadership, the program incorporates coursework, clubs and organizations as well as additional opportunities to instill a passion for ideation in students.
While students in IA can choose from 30 different majors, they are united by their IA minor classes which emphasize group work. Catalyst, a “Shark Tank”-style competition, is the main end-of-summer project for freshman to showcase their innovations in front of real businesses. “Catalyst [let me] meet people in the community who have different businesses and even different people on campus to get feedback on my idea. If the businesses like your idea they can talk to you and potentially invest,” explained Halley Kunda, second-year pre-law student.
Each year of the program features experiences like this, culminating in the IA Ascend senior project, during which students are assigned to solve a problem given by a real organization. Brooke Garrison, a fourth-year Journalism student, shared how her team decided to make a shopping cart that scanned items as they were placed in the cart as a way to reduce shoplifting. The team created a pitch and a prototype; Brooke reflected, “The things we learned working as a team and public speaking I can apply to all my other endeavors.”
One of the key features of IA is that it follows a spring/summer schedule. While IA students are welcome to be on campus in the fall and take online classes, they also have the flexibility to be away and are encouraged to pursue internships or study abroad opportunities during a time that is less competitive than summer, the traditional time for college internships. Fall semesters look different for each student. Halley chose to stay on campus in the fall and enjoy the freedom that came with taking online courses. “The program has allowed me to be flexible and make my own schedule while still giving me the opportunity to rush and be involved in the fall semester like I wanted to,” she said. Others, like Brian Ardavin, a third-year Psychology student, have taken advantage of the study abroad and internship opportunities specific to IA students. Brian participated in the six-week IA abroad program for freshman, which features classes centered on the Innovation minor and takes place near Dublin, Ireland, one of the biggest cities for innovation. “I’m really glad that [Ireland] was my first step,” Brian said. “[Spring semester on campus that first year] wouldn’t have been the same community had we not traveled together before.”
Through IA, Brian has also had the chance to intern with Amazon, study abroad in Spain, and work with various startups in Gainesville. “I’ve done four internships since I’ve been at UF because of the Innovation Academy and the connections I’ve received from it,” he said. This is primarily because of the number of companies interested in working with IA students in particular. “When you talk about IA, people stop and listen,” Brooke noted.
IA students also have special spaces on campus. The McGrogan Active Learning Center (MALC) is an exclusive new IA space on the third floor of the Infirmary. “I can’t imagine what our experience would have been like without MALC. We have some of our best memories there,” Brooke said. The IA Living Learning Community in Beaty Towers also brings students together. “Living in Beaty my first year surrounded by IA students definitely helped my community a lot. It was cool to go to the common area and see everyone working on their projects together,” Halley said.
This community is spurred on by the fact that IA is “not just a program, it’s an experience,” said Brooke. Space to think, space to dream, space to take control of schedules, and physical spaces on campus have all helped IA students flourish and to build deep bonds with one another. “Those people are like my family,” Brooke reflected. “Everyone is so welcoming and has their own unique perspective but one thing we all share is grit and hustle. We are constantly working to be better. It’s really unique to see on such a big campus to have found a home.”
So, who should apply to IA? “This program is for the trailblazer, the game changer, the creative. If you are interested in the thought of innovation and impacting the world, IA is a great place to start,” Brooke said.
If this sounds like you, visit the IA website to learn more!