In 2020, Mindy Mozena, director for Enrollment Services at UCF Downtown, was looking at enrollment rates from high schools within an 8-mile radius of the campus. She was shocked at what she found. The total number of Jones High School graduates who enrolled at UCF over the past five years was just 2.8%. Of those who enrolled, only 1.2% were admitted as first-year students directly into the university.

“With the creation of the UCF Downtown campus, there is a great opportunity to provide access to post-secondary education without the need for local students to travel far from home,” Mozena says. “After looking at the research, I knew that more intentional connections and outreach were important to increase student’s awareness about UCF and what we have to offer.”

Opened in Fall 2019, UCF Downtown is located in the Parramore neighborhood of Orlando. The campus is home to a variety of degree programs, including those focused on civic engagement and government, safety and justice, community well-being, content creation, communication, and digital arts and entertainment. It also shares the campus with Valencia College, building on the DirectConnect to UCF program.

All of these attributes make UCF Downtown the perfect place to recruit local high school seniors. Philanthropic partners agree. In 2017, the Helios Education Foundation granted UCF with funds to develop the Parramore Education and Innovation District (PEID) initiative, a plan to strengthen the educational ecosystem in Parramore.. The ultimate goal was to connect resources and grow support that would allow every Parramore resident to achieve a post-secondary credential. Over the next six years, the plan attracted additional donors from the Kresge Foundation, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and the City of Orlando to achieve that mission.

Community Engagement and Partnerships Manager for UCF’s College of Community Innovation and Education DeShawn Chapman ’11MEd ’16EdD, who is the former education programs manager for PEID, worked directly with Parramore families, acting as a bridge between them and the resources within and outside the community.

“The relationships that DeShawn and the PEID team were able to build with the local community were crucial to our success,” Mozena says. “She and her team had the trust, established the connections and allowed us to build on those existing relationships.”

Today, with more than $3.44 million in new collective funding, Mozena is blazing the path forward. In the last year alone, her team has held more than three dozen events designed to provide program information and foster connections within the community. Together with partners at Valencia College, they are invested and engaged with the local students and their families, and attracting new donors — like the Florida Blue Foundation — to support their efforts.

The community engagement activities range greatly, from costume parades to on-campus classroom experiences, spirit days at the high schools to federal financial aid or FAFSA workshops and, in some cases, one-on-one coaching to guide students through the UCF enrollment process. Each touchpoint is intentionally designed to educate students about the benefits of college, get them to apply — particularly to the one in their backyard — and provide resources for them to graduate college successfully.

One particularly impactful program created is the Downtown Scholars Initiative (DSI). The first part of the program provides students interested in attending UCF with support services to assist in application processes and connections to the campus community; and the second part is a Summer Bridge Program where accepted UCF students receive a downtown residential experience, free tuition and books, peer mentoring, and service learning opportunities during their first summer term entering freshman year.

“The feedback from students, faculty and staff alike at our partner schools has been overwhelmingly positive,” Mozena says. “Emphasizing the importance of lifelong learning should start with the youngest students through early exposure opportunities. Our activities give them early college experiences, allowing them to begin to identify potential educational pathways for their future.”

It hasn’t taken long for the community to take hold of the opportunity. In the first year of the UCF DSI alone, there was a 67% increase in Jones High School students accepted to UCF, a 100% increase in those who enrolled, and a 19% increase in completed applications from the high school. In year two, the DSI program participation skyrocketed with a more than 300% increase in applicants and 29% increase in applications to UCF. Those accepted and enrolled to UCF also continued to soar at 67% and 100% increases, respectively. Beginning Spring 2023, DSI has expanded to include both Jones and Evans high schools, with future plans to also include Oak Ridge.

“Four years ago, students didn’t consider UCF as an option for college,” says Tanika Bango Cooper, community partnership director, Jones High School/Children’s Home Society. “However, now more and more students see UCF as an option and want to attend. Our intentional efforts to increase engagement among students, faculty and staff have worked and we see UCF teacher alums are more engaged, too. UCF signs are all over campus. UCF has a presence on Jones’ campus.”