S. Florida is big draw for Gators

Published: Sunday, January 4, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2009 at 10:52 p.m.

When the University of Florida plays for the national title this week in Miami, the team will have a homefield advantage that extends through the region.

Nearly a quarter of the UF student body hails from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, according to UF's most recent statistics. More than 12,000 students originate from those counties, a 50 percent increase from a decade earlier.

"South Florida is a huge draw for us," UF President Bernie Machen said.

The increase is reflected in the growth of UF Alumni Association-affiliated Gator Clubs in the region. Each of the clubs in the three South Florida counties boasts more than 1,500 members, said Pamela Cortes, president of the Gator Club of Miami.

"It's the largest concentration of Gators outside of Gainesville," she said.

At the university, South Florida's influence is seen in the large populations of Hispanic and Jewish students. UF has the largest number of Jewish students of any university outside Israel and the biggest Hispanic heritage celebration in the U.S., according to members of those communities.

"There's always been a strong Jewish community here, but I think it's gotten even stronger," said Keith Dvorchik, director of UF Hillel.

While the university doesn't track the number of Jewish students, Dvorchik estimates there are as many as 10,000. He said the number has grown from about 5,000 or 6,000 in the decade-plus he's been with Hillel.

Dvorchik attributes the increase to wider trends involving the Bright Futures scholarship and Florida Prepaid tuition programs. More Florida students are using the programs to fund their undergraduate educations, he said, saving money for graduate school.

"Going to school in the state of Florida, particularly at UF, has become such an unbelievable deal that it's hard to turn it down," he said.

The increase in students from southeast Florida has correlated with an overall rise in the number of Florida-born students at UF. But South Florida has fueled the surge, with Broward overtaking Alachua in 2003 as the county producing the most UF students. Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties are next on the list.

About 40 percent of the population in the three South Florida counties is Hispanic, according to U.S. Census statistics. The number of Hispanic students at UF consequently has increased nearly 60 percent from 1997 to 2007, now totaling about 6,000.

The growth is shown by Hispanic Heritage Month and the success of Sabor Latino, a dance team that has won recent talent contests, said Diego Antonio Recinos, president of the Hispanic Student Association.

"This past year has really shown the growth of the Hispanic community at the University of Florida," Recinos said.

The association is the largest student cultural group on campus, he said, serving as an umbrella organization for eight groups representing various nationalities. They include groups for students of Cuban, Mexican and Venezuelan origin.

"That's the main reason why we're so big, really," Recinos said.

The university's Hispanic population has diversified from once being dominated by Cuban-Americans, said Carmen Diana Deere, director of UF's Center for Latin American Studies. The differences mean the community has varied interests and doesn't necessarily speak with one voice, she said.

"I think what we see at UF is a bit of what we see nationally in terms of Latino politics," she said.

But Deere said the growth of UF's Association of Hispanic Alumni shows the collective power of the groups. The group throws the annual Gator Guayabera Guateque, a fundraiser for UF's Institute of Hispanic-Latino Culture and scholarships.

Carlos Hondal, a Miami accountant who is a member of the association, said the event's attendance has increased by hundreds in the last few years. Over the same time, he's seen other changes that reflect the increasing popularity of UF in South Florida.

He said his son, Carlos Jr., was hassled for being a Gator fan in a sixth-grade class mainly filled with University of Miami fans. That changed by the time he was a senior in high school and had decided he would attend UF.

"By 12th grade, all these kids who were giving him a hard time were going to UF," he said.

Cortes said the game's location in Miami means she's been inundated with calls seeking tickets. The Gator contingency in the area will provide a clear advantage over the University of Oklahoma, she said.

"It's a home game for us," she said.

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