IA: Into the Abyss, or Into the Adventure? My Life in UF’s Innovation Academy

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It started with a check box. I was applying for different colleges here in the Sunshine State, and, man, did I want to rip my hair out at the roots. Seriously, essays, applications and teacher recommendations left me wiped out by the time I was done with senior year. While working on my application for the University of Florida, I noticed the small, innocent looking box at the bottom of the page just pleading with me to give it a checkmark. “Check me,” it begged. “Check me and all your wildest dreams will come true. Join the Dark Side. We have cookies.”

I read the overly general description next to the box explaining how the Innovation Academy was a program for hardworking students wanting to be challenged. Well, I was a hardworking student not afraid of a little challenge. How bad could it be?

Mistakenly thinking it was a type of honor society, I naively checked the box. I was expecting maybe an honor society where I did service projects to earn points, not a fully established program with its own personal advisors, its own set of curriculum and an innovation minor students can only get in the IA.

IA Assistant Director Ayesha Mian understands that the IA program is still in the process of learning how to fully utilize itself. “We’re still lacking in our marketing, in our branding, and awareness from people. We’d like to expand this program so more people can take advantage of it,” she said. Many students, due to the lack of knowledge on the program, thought it would be an easy way into UF, only to discover that it was a unique challenge all on its own.

Shortly after acceptance, I received an email from UF and read that I would be attending starting in the spring semester, not the fall. Because I was enrolled in IA, my schedule was going to be different from regularly enrolled students.

I found out that the IA was also an entrepreneurship program. I’m a budding writer working on my English degree. How in the world would I survive a program where you learned about innovation, entrepreneurship, business and–I shudder to say this, even now–teamwork?

I’m not a team player. I am Batman, working alone and getting the job done with no pesky Robins getting in the way–although I would totally hang out with Batgirl, Catwoman and Black Canary if they ever shoot me up with a call for a girls’ night out. So what could I do with my Innovation minor, something that only students enrolled in IA could work for?

But I decided to give the program a shot. Hey, if I’m going to sell millions of my books all over the world, translated in 50 languages–and stop Poison Ivy from poisoning all of Gotham–it would be wise of me to learn some business lingo.

During the first week of spring classes, I took the IA class “Creativity in Context” with a pinch of hope that I would benefit from what it had to offer as much as possible. It was one class a week led by a professor who was actually pretty excited to teach us about the importance of innovation, the necessity of having different perspectives and skills in a team and how to sell products that are both novel and appropriate.

I came to enjoy the class and the classmates who were just as determined to be successful in their chosen majors and careers. Finally, I was with a group of people who wanted to succeed, who wanted to be challenged and who wanted to change lives with their innovative engines blazing. “The biggest thing for me is I want students to be proud of being in IA. I started used #IApride in our communication and it’s making a small dent but needs to be more prevalent. I want students to have the sense of IA Pride all the time,” said Mian.

This doesn’t mean that IA is a perfect experience though. One of the reasons the Innovation Academy was created was to make sure there were students enrolled in the summer semester (College is a business, after all). While the shorter summer semester means classes go by quicker, we are subject to crazy stress due to having to turn in large amounts of work on a daily basis.

Students may miss out on the typical summer events they could have gone to if they were not in IA. Certain clubs are more difficult to join because they tend to recruit and promote themselves during fall and spring, kicking poor summer to the curb. Unless IA students live in or close to Gainesville, they will have to hear of Gator Growl and Football season through their fall-enrolled friends instead of going themselves. The summer semester also means there are less classes to choose from and IA students will miss out on classes only taught during the fall.

Some students in the program have expressed feelings of unhappiness because they felt “tricked” into joining a program that was still finding itself. Rolling their eyes, they complain of the areas in IA that have space to improve, or point out that they need to describe IA to other people constantly because of how little known it is. “Our campus recognition needs more improvement. It’s like with Google where if I want someone to look at something I can say, ‘Just Google it’ and they understand. I want that same feeling with IA. I want people to have the same confidence about feeling aware and informed about what IA is and the experience students get. We are getting there, but still need to keep at it to be as recognized,” said Mian.

At the same time, despite the shortcomings of this program, I do like it. IA students can choose their classes early at the same time athletes do during summer semester and snag their first choice of courses. How many other students actually have lessons on how to promote their own business, go to classes dressed like they are running for the presidency and work on inventions that have the potential to be sold on the market place? I know students in the program who patented their inventions, have won prizes and awards for their business ideas and even some upperclassmen who run their own charitable causes.

The Innovation Academy has its own yearly showcase in the summer called Catalyst where IA students come together in their groups and present their prototype inventions to judges, vying for a trophy recognition for their work in multiple invention categories. Even though the high heels I wore throughout Catalyst forever crippled my feet, my teammates and I had a lot of fun and were proud of our product.

And the IA takes great pride in its students. “Gosh, look at where our students are going! Now for the second time in a year we’ve had a student intern with Senator Marco Rubio’s office in DC, we have students intern in local and national companies ranging from GE to Blue Bird to Cosmopolitan Magazine and Michael Kors! Anything you see that our students do, we celebrate,” said Mian.

The Innovation Academy may not be the perfect fit for everyone, but I believe it’s a program for people wanting to push themselves out of their comfort zones and willing to be challenged. IA is still a young, tottering on its toddler legs and slowly working its way to recognition, but even now multiple colleges of good reputation are asking about the program and if they can start IA on their own campuses. That’s a sign that we’re going in the right direction.

So while my classmates at UF enjoy their time in college, I’ll continue to both enjoy and bemoan my time at the IA. “Students are squashing previously set rumors of IA being the ‘backdoor entrance to UF’ to now being the secret door that only IA students have access to and it them being the secret key to their success,” said Mian. Don’t believe the haters who claim IA stands for “Into the Abyss” because I can personally guarantee that it means “Into the Adventure.”

Correction: A previous version misspelled Mian’s last name.

Rocio Cosme is a sophomore majoring in English at University of Florida. She enjoys reading, writing, singing, crushing over fictional boys in her favorite books, and free hugs.

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