Polk State College’s eight pathways provide students with detailed program maps that outline their courses from their first class to graduation, but sometimes, it’s helpful to get a firsthand account from those who have made it.
Hosted by Career Services on Nov. 9, six Polk State graduates and three others from the community – one from each of the College’s eight pathways – served as panelists for the latest edition of Eagles Talk. During the panel discussion, the graduates gave insight and answered student questions about their paths to success.
“One of the ways I got to where I am is by surrounding myself with the right people,” said Tommy Frank, Executive Director of the Lake Wales Arts Council. “Those could be friendships or private partnerships that turn into brotherhood. When I didn’t think I could do it, I had the people around me that kept me going.”
Lessons learned and finding the “why”
Dan Johnson, representing Polk State’s Commerce and Transportation Pathway, works as a pilot for Republic Airways. He recalled a time in his career when he got lost while flying.
“Some of the worst experiences I’ve had taught me the most,” Johnson explained. “One of the things I learned in that moment was I was not alone. Learn to work with other people. It will help you a lot.”
Cornelius Hamilton, representing the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Pathway, is an engineer by trade and the CEO of Tier 1 Solar. Hamilton recalled being told by an advisor to pursue another field, but was inspired by another advisor, Janet McDougall, to stick with his dream.
“She looked me straight in the eye and told me, ‘You can do anything you want to do’,” Hamilton recalled. “When people tell you that you can’t do something, you tell them you can. Cannot is not in your vocabulary.”
Kesmond Wilson, representing the Business Pathway, is a business and data analyst for American Family Insurance. To separate himself from others pursuing the field, Wilson taught himself SQL coding.
“Someone is going to take a chance on you,” Wilson said. “When you get that chance, work to get better, and prove to them that you belong.”
Amber White, the Public Safety Pathway representative, has nine years of experience in law enforcement and now works as a U.S. Marshal. White began her career at a local police department when she realized that to make changes, she needed to be in leadership and that required a degree.
“I’m one of only 3,000 U.S. Marshals in the world,” she said. “I come from a small town. If you put your mind to something, you can do it. Don’t give up – ever. Keep pushing.”
Autumn Moyer, the Social and Behavioral Sciences and Human Services Pathway representative and a counselor for Polk County Public Schools, comes from a long line of educators and earned her first degree in education. Moyer said her father urged her not to major in psychology – the only time she said he was ever wrong. She recalled working as a teacher when a student explained to her why he wouldn’t do his homework.
“He said, ‘I had to sleep in my brother’s truck because he was at a party’ and he couldn’t do his homework,” Moyer reflected. “There were so many stories like that. I realized I had to be able to help them meet those needs before they could learn.”
Traci Williams, the Education Pathways representative, explained the importance of pursuing passions. Adopted as a child, Williams developed a heart for the students who had been written off. Since beginning her career at a daycare facility, Williams has spent 16 years as an Exceptional Student Education (ESE) teacher.
“Nothing fails with a try,” she said. “Do what you love and do it your very best. Don’t ever think you can’t do something until you try.”
Carlos Buitrago, a graduate of Polk State’s Radiography Program and the representative for the Health Sciences Pathway, said he was drawn to the medical field as a child when his mother was sick. He was introduced to radiography when he fell and needed scans.
“Networking is one of the big things that really got me through my education at Polk State,” Buitrago said. “My beginning was very humble – immigrant family. Now, I work with the best doctors in the world. You have no excuses.”
Motivation and advice for students
In addition to his work in radiography, Buitrago also teaches online and runs the YouTube channel “Lazy Bones Radiology.” Buitrago noted that while getting an education is important for getting into the desired field, it is important to also have the soft skills for success in the field.
“In medical, you’re going to have a lot of information thrown at you at one time,” he explained. “You can be the best student in the world – I had a 4.0 (grade-point average). If you cannot make connections with your patients, you’re not going to go far.”
Williams urged students to follow what some refer to as the “Golden Rule” – treat others how you want to be treated.
“That made a world of difference for me,” she said. “When I was a young teacher and needed supplies, people remembered how I treated them. I had trunks full of supplies delivered to me. You never know when you’ll be the person in need.”
Moyer insisted that students pursue their passions over pay.
“Don’t go into something for money,” Moyer urged. “Go into something you love. You’re going to spend a lot of time at work. If you don’t love what you do, it’s not worth it.”
White noted that as a police officer, she was willing to work cases that her colleagues didn’t want to. In the end, she said, that gave her a wider skillset.
“That showed the Marshals all the things I could do and knew how to do,” she said. “Keep building your resume. Make it impossible for them to turn you away. And if they do turn you away, don’t be afraid to knock on the next door.”
Wilson noted that when he broke into his field, the pay wasn’t great. Because he was eager to learn and work on his craft, however, he quickly advanced.
“I was there because I wanted to be,” Wilson explained. “Your attitude develops your altitude.”
Hamilton noted the importance of repetition until skills are perfected.
“You guys know basketball – you see Stephen Curry shooting the same shots over and over,” Hamilton said. “When I was doing algebra or calculus, it was repetition. I spent hours and hours working and studying.”
Johnson reemphasized the importance of networking. The success of others, he said, can help individuals get to where they want to be.
“You never know who you’re going to meet,” he insisted. “You never know where they’re going to end up.”
Ron Coffie, Hamilton’s business partner with Tier 1 Solar, echoed similar sentiments.
“I’m always recruiting,” Coffie said. “Shake as many hands as you can. Get used to being let down. There might be 1,000 no’s but work until you get that one yes.”
Frank, the representative for the Arts, Humanities, Communication, and Design Pathway, noted that art was a marginalized field. In those cases, he said, individuals who want to be part of it must embrace it full throttle.
“If you are passionate about something, lean into it full force,” he advised. “I love what I do. There’s a lot you can do within any field. Stay curious.”