When Millicent Whitehead came to the U.S. in 2001, she received her General Educational Development (GED) high school equivalency diploma but wouldn’t revisit her academic goals for nearly 15 years. She didn’t think then that she would be graduating now as the first in her family to achieve a college degree.
Whitehead will celebrate the completion of not one, but two Polk State degrees on December 9 during the College’s 125th Commencement Ceremony where her daughters, who have inspired and motivated her along the way, will cheer her on as she walks across the stage.
“My oldest is 18 and my youngest is 16 and has cerebral palsy. I wanted to prove to my oldest that if mommy can do it, she can do it too,” Whitehead said. “My youngest has given me an immense amount of strength and courage. Seeing her fight every day motivated me to be strong and to stay focused on my goals.”
Millicent admitted that she felt like a “fish out of water” when she enrolled in college 20 years after graduating from high school in 1996. She started in developmental courses and discovered Polk State’s Teaching Learning Computing Center (TLCC) and TRiO Student Support Services, which both provide valuable resources including tutors.
“It was difficult for me at first not knowing how to navigate the college environment,” she said. “But once I connected with my advisor and found tutoring at Polk State, I had the foundation I needed to be successful.”
She went from developmental courses to honors classes.
“It was difficult for me at first not knowing how to navigate the college environmen. But once I connected with my advisor and found tutoring at Polk State, I had the foundation I needed to be successful.”
“Get you a tutor at Polk State,” she added as a piece of advice to her peers. “Find someone who you are comfortable with because they will encourage you and provide you with valuable resources.”
Polk State also provides students with the flexibility to take classes in a variety of modalities including in-person and online, and during the day, in the evenings, or on the weekends. Whitehead noted that this flexibility was helpful in balancing a full-time course load, a full-time job, and the additional responsibilities that come with raising a child with special needs.
“I was taking a night class once and my daughter was at home with her aunt when she had a seizure,” Whitehead said. “Of course, I ran out of class immediately and when I got to my apartment there was an ambulance. But my professor was understanding and accommodating – everyone here at Polk State cares about the students and is willing to help.”
Whitehead also touted Polk State’s affordability and ways in which she has been able to pay for her education. She received an emergency scholarship from the Polk State College Foundation and has taken advantage of the College’s tuition payment plan. She has also benefited from CareerSource Polk’s Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) Program which provides job seekers with funds for education and training that meets workforce needs in Polk County.
This is how she completed her Associate in Science in Elementary Education. With this, she plans to go back to work with Polk County Public Schools, where she has previously served as a custodian, a teacher’s assistant, and a secretary.
But as Whitehead has progressed on her journey, she has developed additional career goals that required her to also obtain an Associate in Arts degree. Her aspirations include social work with immigrant children, as well as one day opening a facility for children with special needs.
“Everyone here at Polk State cares about the students and is willing to help.”
“I have switched my majors quite a few times, but that was never a reason to give up or to become discouraged,” she said. “I wanted to prove to my daughter that if I can work, pay the bills, go to school, and be a mom, then she can do it too – she can do whatever she puts her mind to.”
And she has.
Whitehead’s eldest daughter, Vanessa, took dual enrollment classes at Southeastern University and graduated from high school with 44 college credits. She plans to complete her associate degree at Polk State due to the affordability and proximity to home, then transfer to the University of Central Florida to major in business.
Her 16-year-old daughter, Kiana, serves as an inspiration for them both.
“My greatest hope for Kiana is that she will be able to walk one day,” Whitehead said. “She is my motivator to one day have my own business that takes care of special needs children so that parents have a trusted place where they know their child is being cared for and is safe while they go to work or school, or just need a break.”
Whitehead will begin a baccalaureate degree program in January at the University of South Florida, where she will study social work.
“My advice is to go for it,” she shared. “Go for what you are destined to do.”