SARASOTA -- Seventeen-year-old Veronica Sampalik was one of 85 "first freshmen" to walk into the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee rotunda Thursday feeling a bit nervous.
Donned in her welcome day T-shirt and new student lanyard, Sampalik said she is excited and interested to see the campus continue to change and grow each year.
Sampalik, the youngest student in the inaugural freshman class, was accepted when she was 16. A Lakewood Ranch graduate, she plans to study finance.
She said being the youngest in her class has not made her any more anxious about starting college.
"Just like anybody else, I'm nervous about who I'm going to meet, " Sampalik said, "Otherwise, I feel everything will be fine."
USF Sarasota-Manatee regional Chancellor Arthur Guilford was thrilled to finally see the long-discussed first freshman class arrive.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," Guilford said. "Our campus will look completely different in 10 years."
The college selected a diverse group of 135 new college students from a pool of 392 applicants.
"These students have a unique opportunity by being the first freshman class a college has had," said Guilford. "This is a top-notch class. There is no doubt we are going to be able to get more programs rolled out and more degrees."
The class of 2017 is entering its freshman year with an average high school grade
point average of 3.59.
The incoming class is also very local: 88 percent of the students come from Sarasota and Manatee counties.
Lauren Henry, an incoming freshman, welcomes the chance to attend a four-year university without having to leave her family, or the routine she has established in Sarasota.
"They offer great opportunities, and I don't have to uproot," Henry said.
Plenty of college students are like Henry, notes Dennis Stover, regional vice chancellor of advancement at USF Sarasota-Manatee.
"Many of our students live and work here," Stover said. "Students get excited about the community they go to school in."
Freshman Sarah Bradtmueller said she, too, is not looking to move away. Bradtmueller, who works as a teacher's assistant at the small, private Julie Rohr Academy in Sarasota, is a sixth-generation Sarasota native.
Bradtmueller plans to study elementary education and stay in Sarasota as a teacher.
"It's hard, because you are not always guaranteed a job," Bradtmueller said. "But it is what I want to do, and I can't risk something I love."
Unlike Bradtmueller, freshman Hannah Veiticus does not have family roots in Sarasota. Veiticus traveled the longest distance, coming from Thorpe, England. Originally from Chicago, she attended high school right outside London when her family relocated for her father's new job.
Veiticus said the decision to come back to the United States for education rather than stay in England was an easy one.
"I have always loved Florida and have family in the area," Veiticus said. "And in England, you declare your major immediately, and there is no budge room. There is more of a variety in America, where you can pick and choose different majors and put them together."
Veiticus said she is considering travel abroad during college, possibly back to the United Kingdom.
"Opportunities like that bring people together," Veiticus said.
Guilford said he hopes the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus has dormitories by fall 2016, and the biology bachelor's degree program is set to launch next fall.
The university just opened its biology labs at Mote Marine Laboratories this year.
"I chose this school for their partnership with Mote Marine," said freshman and Sarasota native Tyler Lambert.
Amanda Evora, a 2012 graduate from USF Sarasota-Manatee and Olympic figure skater in the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, encouraged the new students to network as much as possible during their college years.
"Balance your life," Evora said. "Make education a priority, but also take advantage of other opportunities. And make sure to network. Everyone in this room has something to offer."
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.