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For some UF students, ‘summer’ school is their regular schedule

Imagine going to school through the summer months, when it’s too hot to do anything outside — and having the cooler months off to travel and football games without worrying about homework.

Sound like a good plan? The University of Florida thought so, although not for all the same reasons the plan might appeal to college students.

A pilot program in which students attend classes only during the spring and summer semesters is in its inaugural year at the university. Three hundred freshmen started college classes in January instead of last August like the rest of their peers.

The program is called Innovation Academy, and it’s unique to UF. The idea is to reduce crowding during the fall semester and maximize resources during the less-busy spring and summer semesters, all while promoting creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.

UF plans to admit 500 students to the program each year, carrying a steady state of 2,000 students after four years.

This year, Innovation Academy offers 29 majors in seven of the university’s colleges, but the list could expand as the program grows.

While the curriculum for degree programs remains the same, every IA student is required to complete a minor in innovation. Classes for the minor focus on creative and entrepreneurial thinking, leadership and ethics, and culminate in a multidisciplinary project during students’ senior year.

Director Jeff Citty said the minor, along with the seminars and workshops in innovation and entrepreneurship that are offered along with the program, give students the skills they need to be competitive in the 21st century.

Compared to their competitors for jobs, Citty said, “I think they’re going to come with a little something special.”

Natalia Tamayo, a freshman from West Kendall, was skeptical about the program at first, but now she’s glad she checked the box for Innovation Academy when she was applying to UF.

When she got her acceptance letter in February 2012, Tamayo, now 20, was overjoyed.

But the letter went on to say she’d been accepted to the Innovation Academy, which meant she couldn’t start at UF until January — almost an entire year later.

“My heart sank,” she said. Tamayo was an ambitious student, graduating in the top 3 percent of her class, and she wasn’t happy about having to wait an extra semester while all of her friends started college.

Since it had been her dream to attend the university, she accepted UF’s offer anyway.

Soon after, Tamayo learned she could take two online classes during the fall. She moved to Gainesville and spent the fall semester learning her way around campus, taking advantage of UF’s advising resources and working a part-time job at Forever 21.

The experience, she said, was great.

“I made it a goal to be involved,” Tamayo said. “I didn’t suffer just because I didn’t go on campus for classes.”

While Innovation Academy students are free to do pretty much whatever they want during their fall semesters — as long as it doesn’t involve taking classes on campus — administrators encourage them to study abroad, participate in UF research or take an internship.

This August, the program will offer its own internship. Innovation Academy students can apply to solve a problem for a local startup company over the course of the semester.

And yes, spring-summer students can still apply for the much-coveted lottery for Gator football season tickets.

“That was a big concern among students,” Citty said.

While the program’s directors have only had to iron out minor kinks so far — one of them, dispelling the rumor that Innovation Academy students couldn’t go to the football games — Citty said one of the challenges is attracting students to the idea of going to school January through July.

One factor that does appeal to students, he said, is the school-within-a-school feeling of the program. At a university with total enrollment hovering around 50,000 people, that might attract students who are nervous about the possibility of falling through the cracks.

Now that she’s finally on campus, Tamayo said she’s enjoying her classes and getting even more involved with student life. She and a handful of her friends in Innovation Academy are working on forming a special branch of Student Government geared toward the program, and organizing activities for the summer semester so the campus will stay lively.

Tamayo advises high school seniors who will enter the program next year to start putting together a solid plan for fall. The more involved you are, she said, the more opportunities you’ll have.

“The best decision in my life was accepting the letter,” she said. “There’s something cool about having to start something new.”