The difference Polk State College makes in the lives of its students is often expressed in numbers:
At $112 per credit hour, Polk State offers the region’s most affordable tuition.
Eighty percent of students graduate with $0 in student-loan debt.
Polk State graduates earn 124 percent more than the average entry-level wage in Polk County.
For alumna Amy Eaton, however, the difference Polk State made in her life is best told not in numbers, but in things. Like the house she was able to rent for her family so they would no longer have to live in a hotel. And the new car that sits in her driveway. Best of all, the certainty that she will never again have to worry about providing for her children.
“I don’t worry about losing my job anymore,” she said, “because I have a career, not just a job.”
Eaton’s story will feel familiar to many Polk State students. She graduated from high school and enrolled in college, but couldn’t quite make that transition. She dropped out, got married to her husband Sean, and soon had two children. She worked retail, raised her kids, got caught up in the day to day, and with each one that passed, the idea she’d ever return to college faded a bit more.
Then, the Great Recession.
Amid the layoffs and foreclosures of the early 2000s, Eaton lost her retail job, making her family of four entirely dependent on her husband’s income as a ferry boat driver for an Orlando theme park.
“It was tough. I was applying everywhere, but there were so many people out of work. Even people with college degrees were working in fast food, and not having a college degree, there wasn’t much out there for me,” she said.
By 2012, at age 38, Eaton was back at work as a phone operator for a local hospital, but the experience of being unemployed and unable to compete in the workforce had profoundly changed her. She had to earn a college degree, she realized, or she would spend the rest of her life in and out of jobs, always on the cusp of losing everything.
As it would turn out, Eaton’s conviction in the value of a college degree developed just when she needed it most.
Right as Eaton was starting Polk State’s Nursing Program, her husband had a massive heart attack and lost his job. It would be two years before he would go back to work. The family finances held together for a time, but as Eaton progressed in the program, she couldn’t work as many hours at the hospital, where she’d moved up from phone operator to nurse technician.
A family that had once faced “normal financial issues,” was now living in an extended stay hotel and dependent on food stamps.
“It felt horrible. It was embarrassing. I felt like a failure,” Eaton said.
Her car’s gas tank was leaking and the air conditioning had long stopped working. She couldn’t afford for her kids to participate in sports or go to prom. She could have dropped out again to work more hours, but Eaton kept going to class, sure that it would all, one day, be worth it.
That day came in 2014, when Eaton graduated with her Associate in Science in Nursing — with no student-loan debt thanks to financial aid and Polk State College Foundation scholarships. She promptly went to work as a registered nurse.
“I was kicking myself for not doing it sooner,” Eaton said. “It was such a sense of accomplishment. I did it for my kids, to be a role model for them.”
This past May, she graduated from Polk State with her Bachelor of Science in Nursing — still free of student debt — and earlier this month, she was accepted to Florida Southern College’s Master of Science in Nursing program.
All the while, in large part because she was able to obtain her education without taking student loans, Eaton’s family has once again found its financial footing. The Eatons left the hotel and now rent a four-bedroom house in North Lakeland. The car that leaked gas has been traded for a new sedan with ice-cold air. When Eaton needs shampoo or milk, she simply goes to the store to buy it, no need to scrape together spare change. On the day she was interviewed for this article, Eaton was headed to IKEA, just to look at furniture, but maybe to buy, because for the first time in a long time, she can.
What money can’t buy, but higher education can provide, Eaton has realized, is confidence — and she has plenty of it since graduating.
“It’s so comforting to know that I will always have work,” she said. “There are so many things I can do in nursing. For the first time in my life, I have options — and I always will.”
Wherever her career takes her, Eaton said she is a better nurse for all that she went through to become one. When she encounters patients who are struggling financially, she can empathize, and when others tell her they’re too busy or old or scared to go back to school, she is able to tell them, respectfully, to get over it.
“There are no excuses,” she said. “You just have to make the decision to do it and you can.”
Polk State’s Nursing Program is one of several Health Sciences programs offered by the College. The Nursing Program offers Associate in Science and Bachelor of Science degrees. Other Polk State Health Sciences programs include Cardiovascular Technology, Diagnostic Medical Sonography, Emergency Medical Services, Occupational Therapy Assistant, Physical Therapist Assistant, Radiography and Respiratory Care.
Polk State College’s history is rich with stories of alumni who have gone on to make impacts, whether in the classrooms and laboratories of prestigious universities, the rough and tumble of commerce, or the halls of political power. Over the years, thousands of Polk State graduates have leveraged their education and experiences at Polk to transform their own lives and the lives of others. This transformation is the essence of what it means to “be Polk.” Whether in big ways or small ways, Polk State alumni embrace the challenge of living lives that matter. News@polk regularly profiles these alumni. Their story is the story of Polk. They are The Pride of Polk.