Whether it’s awarding bachelor’s degrees to the next generation of nurses and computer programmers or certificates to future machine operators and aviation dispatchers, Polk State College is training the workforce that will keep Polk County on the cutting edge.

It’s just one goal Polk State President Angela Garcia Falconetti points to as she leads Polk State, which has been offering quality education at an affordable price since 1964. The college operated as Polk Community College until 2009, when it changed its name to reflect its first bachelor’s degree program. Its 16,000 students can now earn workforce certifications and associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in everything from nursing to engineering to aerospace. At 97 percent, it has the second-highest job-placement and continuing-education rate in the Florida College System.

Courses are offered on six campuses, online or a combination, assisting the three-quarters of Polk State students who attend school part time as they work, raise families or tackle other responsibilities. Through scholarship assistance from the Polk State College Foundation — it provided $1.6 million in student scholarships last year and more than $903,248 in emergency scholarships since 2007 — about 80 percent of students graduate without any student-loan debt. About 70 percent of graduates remain in Polk County, helping to fill the high-skill, high-wage jobs here.

“My biggest goal is to make Polk State the first choice for higher education in Polk County,” said Garcia Falconetti said, adding that she often thinks about ways to enhance student experiences.

“I will continue to advocate for the resources Polk State needs to enhance the educational experience and I will continue securing external resources, including partnerships, grants, and funds to expand opportunities for our students in hopes that one day, every student who steps onto our campuses and centers and graduates with their Polk State degrees will recommend the life-transforming opportunities that are available at the college to all of their family members and friends.”

Strategic Goals

As the college tackles its strategic plan, “SOARING 2022,” it’s preparing to renew its accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges in 2021.

It also continues to forge partnerships with “area businesses and industry, non-profits, and external agencies that will create opportunities for students and promote the economic development of Polk County,” Garcia Falconetti said.

To that end, the college would like to expand Polk State Corporate College in Bartow to increase the amount of training it offers. It also wants to increase access to its courses by expanding in Northeast Polk County, which has been the fast-growing segment of the county.

Student success runs through the strategic plan, and the college moves toward that goal “through innovation, engagement and community impact. The college will continue to be forward thinking, enhance services for students, strengthen partnerships with local industry, and generate additional external resources,” Garcia Falconetti said.

Hispanic Enrollment

Increasing the number of Hispanic students who attend Polk State College to 25 percent of the student population so the college can become a nationally recognized Hispanic-Serving Institution is an important goal that’s well on its way to being achieved.

During 2015-2016, 19 percent of the student population was Hispanic. That increased to 22 percent two years later. And the college is continuing to reach out to attract Hispanics to campus. Getting to 25 percent “will allow the college to be eligible for federal grants that assist all first-generation-in-college and low-income students,” Garcia Falconetti said.

The Hispanic population in Polk County is about 22 percent; in Florida, Hispanics make up about 23 percent of the population.

Helping Students

Polk State does its best to ensure students don’t fall through the cracks when it comes to nutrition, clothing and supplies. Because some students come from low-income backgrounds or are the first in their household to go to college, the college started programs to assist them. In Winter Haven, My Brother’s Keeper provides food, personal hygiene items and referrals to community resources to students in need. Polk State Pantry does the same thing for students on the Lakeland campus. Donations and volunteers keep both running.

In addition, last August it partnered with the United Way of Central Florida to start Destination: Graduation “to connect students in need with financial and housing assistance, food, transportation and more. Destination: Graduation targets low-income students who show an increased risk of dropping out for non-academic reasons but have demonstrated positive academic progress and promise of graduating,” according to the college.

Helping the Community

The college also sponsors many events in the community, helping everything from the American Cancer Society and Polk Education Foundation to the Polk County Police Chiefs Association and local branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It also hosts Wine for Wisdom, which helps fund scholarships through the college’s foundation, and the Polk State Start Right Campaign, where participants fill 500 backpacks with school supplies that are then given to students before school starts.

In addition, employees contributed $50,995 to student scholarships and programs, and another $27,000 to United Way of Central Florida, which supports student success. And they volunteered their time by serving on local boards, from the Central Florida Development Council and Polk Vision to CareerSource and local hospitals.