DREAM. DISCOVER. DOWNTOWN.
//BY LINDA SHRIEVES & CAROL STINNETT
When the downtown campus opened its doors in August 2019, Valencia College—in partnership with the University of Central Florida—unveiled a unique and very 21st century campus. From its footprint alone, you can catch a glimpse of the significant presence it brings to Orlando’s Creative Village.
“We’re building something unique here,” said Dr. Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia College. “But the real measure of a college or university isn’t defined by its buildings, but how well it serves those within them. We’re determined to make a difference in the life of this community.”
A shared campus. A hub for innovation. A multitude of programs. Downtown Campus prepares students for success from the moment they walk through the doors. Students from Valencia College and UCF, live and learn alongside one another. Here, opportunity is felt well beyond the classroom—it’s a place to create connections that will transform lives and inspire students to achieve their aspirations.
Instead of a campus solely operated by one institution, it’s truly a shared campus. Valencia College leads all of the general studies classes for both colleges, which provides students with a seamless transition into a career or onto a program at UCF through the DirectConnect™ program.
“From its curriculum to the way it’s tied into Parramore, this is an educational facility designed to open doors and eliminate barriers to opportunity for everyone,” says Buddy Dyer, mayor of the City of Orlando.
PAVING THE PATH TO TRUE POTENTIAL
A powerful magnet for traditional-age college students, Downtown Campus plays another important role in our community: to provide opportunity to the residents of Parramore.
In building the new campus, Valencia College partnered with leaders in the Parramore community to find solutions that positively impact the largely African-American neighborhood west of Interstate 4.
“We’re next to a variety of neighborhoods where opportunity has always been a challenge,” Shugart says. “We want to offer the best shot for real economic mobility for the communities that surround us here. We need to be visibly present in their community. It’s theirs.”
Ultimately, the neighborhood could become a model for 21st century education—where, within a few blocks, students can attend pre-school through high school—and then college.
“Our goals are long-term,” says Eugene Jones, executive dean of Valencia College Downtown Campus. “The real measure of success will be longer term—when those children in kindergarten at the Academic Center for Excellence graduate from high school… and how we have changed their future.”
the new campus has the potential to be as big as the opening of Disney World.”
TRANSFORMING THE FOOTPRINT OF DOWNTOWN
Modeled after Arizona State University’s campus in downtown Phoenix, the new campus offers degree programs that benefit from being in the heart of the city.
With an opportunity to be in the center of it all—and greater accessibility to professional development opportunities—a number of associate degree programs at Valencia College headed downtown. Many students will now be able to benefit from internships and other work experiences, all while staying close to campus.
Take, for example, the college’s health information technology program. Downtown Campus is within minutes to both major hospital systems in our community—Orlando Health and AdventHealth. This close proximity gives students a chance to put what they learn in the classroom into practice—ensuring that they’re prepared for the job from day one.
The culinary and hospitality programs also relocated downtown. While their former home on West Campus kept students and faculty close to the tourist corridor, the new location places them among top food and hospitality destinations that have sprung up around downtown Orlando in recent years. It’s an expansion that they’ve been waiting for—occupying 50,000 square feet of space—and enabling them to double in size.
“Orlando really is emerging as a food destination. We’re the home to theme parks and the center for several major chain restaurants,” says Craig Rapp, professor of hospitality and restaurant management. “But the advantage of being downtown is that we’re closer to foodie areas such as Baldwin Park, College Park and Winter Park, so we expect some of that will emerge downtown.”
It also puts students close to up-and-coming chefs like Trina Gregory-Propst, a Valencia College grad whose restaurants include Se7en Bites and Sette, and Bruno Zacchini, the chef behind Pizza Bruno.
Jim Inglis, program chair of the Valencia College hospitality program, similarly sees the wide range of possibilities at the new campus. “The opportunities downtown are growing. We have partnerships with the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center, Amway Center, and Marriott. ACE Café has already reached out and is very interested in forming a partnership with us.”
And with the announcement of a new sports and entertainment district near the Amway Center, Inglis believes there will be many more opportunities for students from the culinary and hospitality programs to learn the business. “There will be a hotel, more than 30 restaurants, a series of outdoor concerts. It’s a tremendous opportunity for our students.”
Another group of students shared in the excitement of heading downtown: digital media majors. With plenty of on-campus resources, including green screens, specialized computer labs and industry-standard equipment, the new space trains up-and-comers in one of the hottest emerging career fields around town. “I think the students at the new campus will have quite a few opportunities. Those who want to work or complete internships downtown, find the campus very attractive,” says Anne Ross, downtown digital media professor. “We’re particularly excited to be sharing facilities with UCF. The equipment and labs are just phenomenal.”
A RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
Everyone wants to design their dream kitchen. But when Walt Disney World Resort invested $1.5 million in the culinary and hospitality program, they opened the door for the chef instructors at Valencia College, and their dean, Alex Erdmann, to design truly dreamy teaching kitchens.
The Walt Disney World Center for Culinary Arts and Hospitality is housed on the third, fourth and fifth floors of the UnionWest high-rise. The kitchens are bursting with new equipment—a chance for many students to train on the newest culinary tools as they learn from award-winning chefs. From an Italian-made gelato and ice cream machine to artisanal bread ovens imported from Portugal to a spraying lab for decorating pastries, students in baking and pastry classes will have a wide range of new equipment to train on.
In the kitchens, lessons heat up over both traditional gas stoves and new induction stovetops, which cook faster and cleaner than most traditional ovens. To cool things off, students get hands on with the blast chillers—a common skill required in restaurant kitchens. Topping it off is the special growing cabinet that’s used to grow micro-greens and baby lettuces.
And no more crowding around a table to see what the teacher is doing. With digital, ceiling-mounted cameras that project images to TV screens throughout the room, instructors can now demonstrate various techniques—from chopping to prepping—at their own cooking station. “The Walt Disney World Center for Culinary Arts & Hospitality provides a phenomenal space for students to be able to garner the training they need in those fields,” says Felecia Williams, president of Valencia College Downtown and West campuses.
Disney’s involvement will bring more recognition to the program. “With a location right in the center of one of the world’s most visited tourist destination, we’re setting the stage for future global leaders in our industry,” Erdmann explains.
The move by the college’s culinary and hospitality programs comes at a time when Orlando’s profile as a foodie city is emerging. “The goal here,” says Shugart, “is to create one of the top culinary schools in the country.”
…phenomenal space for students to be able to garner the training they need in those fields”
LEARNING FROM SEASONED EXPERTS
For culinary students, the chance to learn in a state-of-the-art kitchen is part of the path to landing a successful career upon graduation.
“I am super excited,” says Ariana Arzon, who started taking culinary classes at Valencia College in 2019. “The idea of these new kitchens with top-of-the-line equipment—I am very excited to get my hands on it.”
After graduating from Lake Nona High School, Ariana was studying to become a high school English teacher. But after two years, she decided to follow her passion—and take a chance on a culinary career.
I love that you can make one dish and ignite so many feelings in a person.”
Coming from a large Hispanic family, her earliest food memories stem from family gatherings, where everyone brought a dish and gathered to enjoy a meal together. As an adult, she realized how important those memories were.“ Food is a really powerful way to bring people together and uplift spirits,” she says. “I love that you can make one dish and ignite so many feelings in a person.”
And though she’s not pursuing a baking/pastry concentration, she’s eager to try the new chocolate lab. “I may take some extra classes because the chocolate lab sounds so cool to me. If I have any extra space in my schedule, I’ve kind of picked
out a few classes that I want to take.”
Ariana’s long-term goal is to become a sous chef or executive chef at a Disney hotel. Several of her high-school friends studied culinary arts at the college and have already landed jobs there. Two are currently employed at Disneyland Hong Kong and others are working in Disney hotels or for Disney Cruise Line.
“You get so many connections here. The instructors are fantastic and they’ve had full careers. They can help you get internships and jobs,” Ariana says. “I know so many people who got internships at reputable places because of an instructor.”
MIXING IT UP
What could be better than your own mixology lab? While much of the focus at the new Walt Disney World Center for Culinary Arts and Hospitality has been on the teaching kitchens, the new facility, opening 2020, also features a 27-foot professional teaching bar that will enable hospitality students to take bartending courses and earn advanced beverage certificates.
“There’s a real need for people in Orlando to expand their beverage knowledge,” says Craig Rapp, a former food and beverage manager who now teaches hospitality classes at the college. “Previously we had a wine class, but they never got any hands-on training on becoming a bartender.”
With the addition of this beverage and bar lab, the college has added a certificate in bar and beverage management, which students can use as a stepping stool to a bartending job (which Rapp notes is the highest-paying job in most restaurants) or for those who might become a beverage manager.
“A lot of servers don’t know anything about drinks,” says Rapp. “They don’t have that foundation of knowledge; which is that every drink is built on the basics. This is designed to teach them that.”
COLLABORATIVE SPACES LIMITLESS POSSIBILITIES
Take a stroll around campus and you’ll find a number of collaborative spaces mixed in among classrooms, faculty offices and other amenities. After stepping off the elevator on the third floor of UnionWest, you can start to hear the chatter of students nearby. Rounding the corner, you’ll see students filling chairs and tables, and couches—some getting in the latest study session and catching up with friends, while others unwind and enjoy the scenic city views.
The space, which shares similar features to the fourth and fifth floors, has an industrial feel to it—featuring floor-to-ceiling windows that utilize natural light, colorful artwork that fills the walls and furniture designed for collaboration and innovation. It’s anything but your typical learning environment. It’s an area for limitless possibilities.
For students looking to get some work done away from the buzz, there are quiet study rooms throughout the building.
These have individual desks with ample space to spread out books, papers and other materials, while offering some privacy.
Take a peek into some of the other areas around that help bring the campus to life:
Conference rooms with flat-panel monitors on the walls and connectivity options on the tables; they’re made to support active learning.
First Stop, a joint Valencia College and UCF space, covering admissions and financial aid.
Workspaces, offices for student services, classrooms and amenities span across floors one through five.
A 7,900-square-foot Recreation and Wellness Center that includes a multipurpose fitness studio, as well as a variety of gym equipment.
Classrooms designed with modular furniture, whiteboards on several walls for ideation and class discussions, and the newest technology for student learning.
EXPLORING THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Downtown Campus places students right in the heart of Orlando; offering just the right mix of a vibrant lifestyle and the amenities of a big city. Within a 10- to 15-minute walk from campus, students can experience the many things there are to love about the City Beautiful. From hitting the books at Lake Eola or a nearby coffee shop to meeting friends at a local restaurant to gaining internship or work experience at businesses close by—the options are endless.
There’s definitely not a shortage of sports games, concerts or other events with Amway Center, Camping World Stadium and Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts a couple of blocks away. Or, if students want to check out more sights around town, the LYNX Central Station and SunRail Church Street station can get them there.
SOAKING IN THE VIEWS
For the first time in the college’s history, Valencia College students are living in dormitories, alongside their UCF classmates. For many, the new high-rise dormitory, UnionWest, provides them their first chance at a traditional college experience.
The 15-story building—which has 10 floors of apartment-style dormitories—is now home to 626 students. Valencia College students occupy nearly half of the dorm rooms.
And no wonder. At UnionWest, the amenities include a campus gym, located on the second floor, and a large communal area on the sixth floor, where residents can hang out and watch TV, play video games together, or play a game of ping-pong or pool together.
If they want to take in the scenery, they have one of the best views in the city—from the Skydeck—a large balcony that looks east over downtown.
It’s a big step for many students—including Isael Nuñez. Isael was living at home with his mom and taking classes at Valencia College when he learned about the opportunity to live at Downtown Campus. Eager to stretch his wings, he signed up early. Although other people were nervous about the prospect of living downtown, Isael wasn’t.
“Trying something new in life is one of the best ways to move forward and develop yourself,” he says. “Change is good—even though it’s not always easy, it’s good.”
While others live in UnionWest, Isael is also working there as a resident assistant (RA); the job requires him to counsel other residents or help them with problems. He has plenty of experience doing that. Before taking on his RA duties, he worked as a security officer for an Orlando timeshare resort. “That gives me a lot of experience in how to help people,” says Isael.
But more so, he knows the importance of a smile or a friendly face for someone who’s feeling down. “One
of the reasons I struggled in middle school was because I felt like I was alone,” Isael says. “Sometimes, you
just need someone to reach out—even if it’s just saying, ‘How’s your day going?’ ”
LEARNING TOP SKILLS IN WEEKS
A week before the start of classes, the college’s Center for Accelerated Training opened its doors. Located on Pittman Street, it’s set on the southern end of the new campus. Home to Valencia College Accelerated Skills Training programs, the center offers short-term workforce training classes—helping individuals learn the skills needed for professional development opportunities at their current job or to find a new, better paying one. To ensure access to these programs, many students are eligible to receive up to $5,000 in tuition funding from Career Source of Central Florida.
The center currently offers opportunities in advanced manufacturing, providing a first-hand look at how to create electronic circuit boards and gain sought-after positions with local defense and aerospace employers. Another program, transportation and logistics, offers hands-on training in warehouse and distribution trades. In the coming months, more courses will be added, including a 22-week program to prepare future industrial maintenance technicians.
The initial classes at the Center for Accelerated Training, which started on Aug. 19, had 26 students—10 of whom came from neighborhoods in or near Parramore. “This means a lot to me,” said Lorraine Hill, a Parramore resident who is taking classes to learn how to assemble electronic circuit boards, a job in high demand at Lockheed Martin and other local employers. “It’s giving me a second chance to get myself together and have a better life.”
PROVIDING SERVICE WITH A SMILE
It’s 2 p.m. on Friday, and Valencia College student Austin Spector is changing into a suit and tie to leave for work.
He doesn’t have to go far. Austin, a hospitality and tourism management major, works the front desk at the Marriott Orlando Downtown. His commute? A two-block walk from his dorm
room at UnionWest.
“During the interview, they asked about my commute,” he describes. “I told them I would walk to work. That’s what’s great about being downtown. Everything is so close.”
In high school, Austin thought he wanted to become a chef. But along the way, Austin discovered that working in a kitchen wasn’t his passion. What he craved, he realized, was interaction with customers.
A hospitality career, he thought, better suited his personality.
After some research, he discovered that Orlando was home to two great programs—Valencia College hospitality and tourism management program, which offers students the chance to transfer into on the top 5 best colleges for hospitality and tourism in the world: UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.
He was sold. Now in his second year, Austin moved in August from an apartment near West Campus to a dorm downtown.
“Overall, it’s been a really good move,” says Austin, who made a bunch of new friends on his first night at the dorm, while washing clothes in the laundry room. Since then, he and his friends, students from Florida, Venezuela and Colombia, have become close. “Mostly we hang out in the common area on the 12th floor,” he explains. “But if we want to play pool or ping pong, we’ll head down to the sixth floor.”
MAKING A LASTING IMPACT
Kelli Lewis – HIT Program
After joining the college in 2013, Kelli Lewis served as the inaugural program chair for the A.S. in Health Information Technology (HIT). It’s proven successful since the start—something Kelli and her team say they’ll grow on with the new opportunities downtown. “I’m so happy to be part of this new campus—where our students live and learn,” she explains. “Now that we’re open, we’ve had the opportunity to get to know and work alongside UCF’s Health Information Management (HIM) faculty. It’s a great partnership; right now we’re exploring ways to foster collaboration between our programs’ students.”
Students are also sharing in the excitement, saying that being downtown places them closer to internship opportunities at local hospitals and health care facilities. With access to key players in the industry, many students have set their sights on entering directly into the workforce upon graduation or continuing on the pathway to a bachelor’s degree at Downtown Campus.
Rudy Darden – English Professor
English Professor Rudy Darden’s connection to Downtown Campus began in 2015 with his work on the steering committee for the campus. Even before the start of classes, Rudy looked forward to the new opportunity and focused on deepening his connection with the Parramore community. He’s established relationships with many—communicating that college is for them. Teaching the mechanics of grammar and composition is only part of his role, he shares. The other part entails encouraging students to discover their voice and grasp the value of living an examined life.
“There’s no greater joy than doing work that’s tied to my beliefs. Life doesn’t present us at the starting line at the same place. People of color and women very often start behind. Valencia College speaks to that kind of disparity and says that no matter where you are, we can level the playing field in education,” he says. “People are really carrying that charge, and I believe that mine is to model it.”
TURNING DREAMS INTO REALITY
From the time Downtown Campus broke ground, local organizations and community members from all around Central Florida rallied together to show their support. So many played an important role in this endeavor, all sharing the same vision: Improving countless lives through the power of learning.
To those committed to giving back to our community. Who make a difference right at home and help others when they need it most. You create better tomorrows by ensuring that high-quality education belongs to everyone because the future does, too. When we join together, our entire community prospers.