Florida College Road Trip: University of Florida

Growing up in Ocala, Mario Agosto owned a University of Florida Gators hoodie and hat and was certainly familiar with the public university about 40 miles from home. But in terms of all that makes the place special, “I never understood it until I got here,” he says.

Before graduating in the spring with a bachelor’s degree in criminology and law, Agosto presented criminology research he assisted on at an academic conference, served as student body vice president, and traveled to both the state’s and the nation’s capitals to meet with lawmakers and advocate for making college more accessible. He’s now sticking around to earn a master’s degree in real estate at the university.

“UF is synonymous with opportunity,” he says.

Indeed, a wealth of options — and a strong Gator spirit — characterize UF, whose 2,000-acre main campus is home to more than 31,000 full-time undergrads.

[Read: Make a Large College Feel Like Home.]

From academics to athletics to extracurricular activities, “there’s an involvement culture,” says Brendon Jonassaint of Okeechobee, Florida, a 2017 health science grad now earning a master’s degree at UF in health administration. He found his community on campus in part through intramural sports, his fraternity and the dean of students’ office.

About 20 percent of students join sororities and fraternities, which often host events on campus. Hundreds of undergrads get involved with planning for an annual dance marathon in the spring that raises money for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. Every fall, Gator Growl brings students together with food, a festival, a pep rally and a concert.

On the academic side, larger classes are more common until you move higher up in your major. But small-group sessions led by teaching assistants ensure you are grasping the concepts. UF offers a range of resources to assist those who take advantage, including a central Office of Academic Support, peer tutoring and frequent group study sessions for certain difficult courses, such as chemistry and calculus.

The University Minority Mentor Program pairs students from diverse backgrounds with a faculty or staff member for one-on-one mentoring to help them transition to college. Roughly 1 in 4 students identify as belonging to a traditionally underrepresented minority group. The honors program, which enrolls about 10 percent of undergrads, offers smaller courses, advising and scholarship opportunities.

More than 90 percent of students come from within the Sunshine State, and most undergrads say that the UF community is friendly and caring. “People you don’t know say hello,” says Jackie Phillips, a recent grad in family, youth and community sciences from Jacksonville, Florida. There are opportunities to get to know professors, too, such as through undergraduate research.

[See: Best Colleges in Florida.]

“UF has so many different programs that give you funding,” says Jessica Valdes Garcia, a 2018 grad in political science and Portuguese from Miami, who got involved in research with a faculty member in African-American studies beginning in her sophomore year. She also went on to do other research on child abuse prevention in Brazil and the representation of women throughout history in Cuba.

Three-quarters of freshmen live on campus, where there are 26 residences and some 45 dining options. A favorite is the vegetarian and vegan Krishna Lunch served outside every weekday on the Plaza of the Americas, a central hub of student activity.

[Read: 3 Ways to Adjust to College as a Freshman Commuter. ]

The Division I Gators sports teams compete in the Southeastern Conference, and the highly anticipated football games at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium — known as The Swamp — draw upwards of 90,000 fans, typically decked out in the school’s distinctive blue and orange. A season ticket for students is $140.

Gainesville is a quintessential college town with many shops and restaurants. Nearby attractions include Ichetucknee River, where students enjoy outdoor activities like kayaking, canoeing and tubing, and Devil’s Den Spring, a popular spot for snorkeling. Orlando and the St. Augustine beaches to the east are each about a 90-minute drive.

More From the Florida College Road Trip:

University of Miami

Florida State University

Rollins College

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News “Best Colleges 2019” guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.

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Florida College Road Trip: University of Florida originally appeared on usnews.com