Road Trip: the University of Central Florida

We toured four Florida schools and found out what it's like to attend them.

By SHARE

If a misguided tourist made a wrong turn onto UCF's Orlando campus, the driver could easily mistake his or her surroundings for one of Disney World's nearby resorts. Amid its academic buildings, UCF boasts roadways lined with palm trees, residence halls that could pass as hotels, and a large, luxurious swimming pool available to students year-round. The area's average high temperature hovers above 70 no matter the season.

Part of what makes UCF's campus look so attractive is its newness. Chartered just 40 years ago, the university has grown tremendously since its beginnings with two buildings and not quite 2,000 students. UCF's 1,400-acre campus now serves more than 50,000 students, about 43,000 of whom are undergraduates, making it the fifth-largest university in the nation. Given the choice, UCF President John Hitt would not downsize. "Harvard and Stanford are important, but they serve such a small number of students," Hitt says. "If we do a good job educating 12,000 graduates each year, then we will have a positive impact on those individuals and the economy."

Though it's easy to feel lost at such a mammoth school, some of the UCF freshmen who live on campus make their big school feel small by join-ing living-and-learning communities (there's one for out-of-state students) or by getting to know other residents of their housing communities—clusters of residence halls that resemble little villages.

Others make UCF their own by studying hospitality management or engineering, two of the school's most popular majors, and taking advantage of the internship opportunities available in Orlando, a tourism mecca that is also home to the Central Florida Research Park and labs for organizations such as the Laser Institute of America and multiple branches of the U.S. military.

But with UCF's young age comes a dearth of the traditions that are the lifeblood of Florida's older public universities. The Knights have a new football stadium and a new basketball arena, but the teams' following does not compare to that of the Florida Gators or the Florida State Seminoles. Arlen and Diane Chase, two married anthropology professors who came to UCF together 25 years ago, say that when the school first opened, Orlando stores didn't even sell Knights paraphernalia. It was Gator or Seminole gear.

Luckily, students at UCF see tradition as something they have the opportunity to create, not as something that's missing. "There is not much tradition now, but in 20 years new traditions will have started," says freshman Mallory Shaw. "We all grew up wanting to be Gators and Seminoles. Our kids will grow up wanting to be Knights."

More About Central Florida

Plus factor: Campus layout is designed in concentric circles for maximum convenience; makes school feel smaller.
Undergrad enrollment, fall '08: 42,910
Est. annual cost, 2008-09: in state, $12,439; out of state, $27,919

Florida Road Trip

Searching for a college? Get our America's Best Colleges 2010 complete rankings.