ESTERO, Fla. — Saturday, February 12, is FGCU Day: the day Florida Gulf Coast University kicks off the celebrations for its 25th Anniversary. The university was born on the idea that education inspires growth, creates prosperity, and strengthens community.
"I am in a small group of people that were hired the year before we opened, so I came in the in August of 1996," Dr. Win Everham said. "It was cool. It was a dream job."
Dr. Everham is a Professor of Ecology & Environmental Studies at FGCU's Water School. He said when he first saw what would become the campus of Florida Gulf Coast University, it was just a construction site.
"I just wanted to know that it existed," he said. "And somebody came out of the construction trailers and said 'What are you doing?' I said, 'No, it's OK! I'm interviewing for a faculty job.' And he said, 'Not here! Not without construction boots and a hardhat. Get off my construction site!' So before I had been hired, I got kicked off the campus," Dr. Everham said.
That story would be his introduction to a challenge he said he couldn't wait to take on: building a university, a curriculum, and community ties from the ground up.
"We used to have this joke that we're laying the track, building the engines in the cars, while we have our first passengers in the railroad," Dr. Everham said.
He said that railroad may not be as long as the decades of tracks institutions like the University of Florida and Florida State have laid, but that's part of what makes FGCU stand out.
"There was a real desire to say, 'OK, in the 21st Century, might universities have to be different?' And if that's true, wouldn't it be easier to move toward that difference from the start, rather than to take something that's been alive for 100 years and change it?" he said.
Dr. Everham said FCGU's first students were locals, in their 20s and 30s; people who, before this, didn't have the opportunity for a four year institution because one didn't exist in Southwest Florida. As the University grew and aged, he said most students are now coming out of high school. But he said the focus of FGCU has always been the same.
"The first thing that we are, as Mike Martin says, is a ladder, not a gate. Not a gate. I think we've done that," he said.
He said the University is a ladder to a brighter future, more opportunities for students to make a better life, and better community. Over the years, FGCU has become known for its ecological and environmental studies with its Water School. The pandemic has shined a light on the importance of its healthcare education. And its new school of entrepreneurship lays the groundwork to diversify the economy of Southwest Florida.
"We're embedded in place. We're Southwest Florida's university," Dr. Everham said.
He also reflected on the challenges of the next 25 years.
"I'm not sure we've figured out who we're going to be yet. We have a lot of who we are already in place, and now, I think the next 25 years we'll we'll have a chance to focus in on that, and really become the very best of what we're going to become," he said.
Dr. Everham said another challenge he hopes the university tackles in its next 25 years is having more flexible curriculums to meet students where they are. He said 90 percent of his students work — some even full time — and he said the school needs to find a way to make education work for them.
FGCU Day is Saturday, February 12, from 9AM-3PM. Everyone is welcome for the celebration. FGCU said it combines the excitement of Homecoming, Eagle Expo, and a wide range of interesting, informative events and activities.