When Monica Parikh moved to Columbia from Washington state in July of 2012, she knew nothing about her new community. Well, almost nothing. "I knew its location on a map. That was about it," Parikh said.
Now, thanks to the first Columbia Association Excite Columbia citizen academy, Parikh feels as if she has been a Columbian for years.
"I could live here for 10 years and not know as much as I learned in these last few weeks," said Parikh at the academy's graduation last week.
Parikh is one of 12 to "graduate" from the five-week academy, the first of its kind put on by CA's communications department.
The academy, which is free, takes citizens through an in-depth five-week crash course of Columbia's history and the operations of CA. For the first four weeks, students watch presentations on CA from many of the organization's leaders, including President Phil Nelson.
On the final day of the academy, Oct. 30, the students delivered presentations on their "Vision for Columbia." The presentations, which ranged from PowerPoint sideshows to poster boards, delved into what each individual liked and would change about Columbia.
For Long Chen, a 33-year-old Hickory Ridge resident, the class provided him with "useful information" he plans to spread.
"Most people my age don't know anything about Columbia," he said. "I think CA hopes we will take the knowledge and share it with friends, neighbors and people in the community."
Celeste Olinger, CA's director of Communications, said the purpose of the academy is to inform and inspire.
"The intention of citizens academies are for people to gain a better understanding of the overall operations of the organization, as well as to develop leaders in the community that serve as ambassadors," she said.
Olinger said engaging residents of Columbia in discussion and the sharing of information is key to her role.
"From a communications perspective, I like to call the residents part of my tool box," she said. "They are willing to learn and listen. It's a matter of making that commitment to them."
Olinger, who said she was thrilled with the turnout, hopes to follow through on that commitment by making the academy a regular event held twice a year.
"This provides the perfect platform for residents to engage and gain understanding," she said.
CA officials thought the inaugural academy went so well that they announced a second will be held in February.
For CA Board of Directors Chairman Andy Stack, who attended the first and fifth meetings, a second class can't come soon enough.
"I'm really looking forward to the next session," said Stack, who added he was "pleasantly surprised" by the turnout.
"We had people who were fairly new and people who had been here many years. One thing I have heard from everyone is that they learned something," he said.
Stack said the academy "was a win for everybody," and that it was good to hear feedback, both new ideas and old, from the group.
"I've been here 37 years. When you walk around Columbia you realize you can point things out that happened because a group of people got together," he said.