Polk State College student Inez Cruz wants to dispel any stigma surrounding state colleges, and her experience is one of many testaments to the opportunities that abound at Polk County’s largest-serving higher education institution.
Cruz is a first-generation Mexican American and the first in her family to go to college. She has accomplished her Polk State Associate in Arts degree and is halfway through the Bachelor of Applied Science in Supervision and Management Program. With a concentration in Public Administration, Cruz recently landed a paid internship with U.S. Congressman Darren Soto’s District Office, and she encourages her peers to take advantage of invaluable opportunities like this through the partnerships and networking that exist at Polk State.
“Polk State is not only an affordable way to go to college,” Cruz explained. “I have received a quality education, I have found a really great support system, and I have been able to network and connect to opportunities I could have never imagined at Polk State.”
Cruz’s parents came to the U.S. when they were young. She was born in Orlando and raised in Haines City. Life was not easy in a low-income family, especially when her father was deported and her mother was left to raise Cruz on her own.
“Polk State is not only an affordable way to go to college. I have received a quality education, I have found a really great support system, and I have been able to network and connect to opportunities I could have never imagined at Polk State.”
“My mom has a low-level education but always instilled in me the importance of going to college,” Cruz said. “She is hardworking and courageous, and my family has supported me in pursuing education that they were not able to receive in their home country of Mexico.”
Her Polk State journey began when she took dual enrollment classes at Ridge Community High School. Dual enrollment allows high school students to complete requirements for their diplomas and college credits simultaneously.
Cruz also became a student ambassador for the College, which provides a two-year scholarship to seniors who volunteer within their high schools. This allowed Cruz to complete her Polk State Associate in Arts degree at no cost to her.
“In high school, you are still trying to learn what college is and navigate things like admission and financial aid,” Cruz explained. “While I was able to get ahead with college credit, it wasn’t even about that. It was about learning and gaining experience that helped me understand what college was going to be like.”
“Then to have my college paid for was incredibly helpful,” she added.
‘I am lucky to have a strong support system at the College’
Polk State has continued to provide Cruz and thousands of students with both quality education and support in the form of financial aid, scholarships, and work opportunities. Nearly 44 percent of Polk State students receive federal Pell Grants, approximately $1.3 million in scholarships are awarded each year by the Polk State College Foundation, and part-time and work-study positions are filled with students in need of employment.
Cruz worked in the Student Services department as an Other Personal Services (OPS) worker. This is where her networking began, with Cruz expressing gratitude to numerous Polk State staff members including Associate VIce President for Student Services Larry Pakowski and Career Services Coordinators Stephanie Benton and Jeannette Grullon.
“Polk State has really great professors, and I am lucky to have a strong support system at the College. The professors and staff work with their students closely to ensure that they can advance in their courses, careers, and life.”
“Those are only a few of many staff and faculty along the way who have really helped me with resources and navigating not only college but also life,” said Cruz, who has also benefited from TRiO Student Support Services. “It is not always easy but with their help, students are able to relieve a lot of stress and burdens that come with education and personal situations.”
TRiO provides underrepresented students with student success coaching, faculty and staff mentoring, financial aid planning, college tours, and more. Cruz noted that TRiO provided numerous resources as well as the opportunity to travel to the University of South Florida and universities in Alabama.
She also traveled to Chicago for the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) Annual Conference as a representative of the Polk State Únete Club.
These experiences paired with the expertise and support of faculty and staff have helped catapult Cruz to success. She emphasized her gratitude for the faculty of the Bachelor of Applied Science in Supervision and Management Program, who she noted as knowledgeable and personable.
“Polk State has really great professors, and I am lucky to have a strong support system at the College,” she said. “The professors and staff work with their students closely to ensure that they can advance in their courses, careers, and life.”
The flexibility of a fully online course load has also been beneficial for Cruz in balancing her full-time internship with Congressman Soto’s office.
Congressman Soto is a longtime supporter of Polk State who is always encouraging students to apply for internships with his office. He has consistently visited with students at the College and at the state and national levels to discuss their needs, he has served as the keynote speaker for Polk State’s Hispanic Heritage Month Kickoff, and he most recently hosted the Future Forum Youth COVID-19 Relief Town Hall at the Polk State Center for Public Safety.
Since joining the Congressman’s team, Cruz says she has enjoyed a firsthand look at federal work. She is currently tasked with research for a legislative project regarding consumer protection, and it is solidifying her interest in pursuing a career in public service.
“I chose my degree concentration in Public Administration because public service and government are areas that I am really passionate about, especially the ability to provide representation for underserved communities,” Cruz said.
She pointed to a recent article she read.
“It said that the first three to four months of internship is like an interview,” she said, “but it’s not only them interviewing you; you are also interviewing them. You are learning if this will be an area that is the right fit for you day-to-day.”
As a paid, full-time intern in Congressman Soto’s office, Cruz is getting a firsthand look and real-world experience that will benefit her in this internship and beyond.
“I am here 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week and I get to see what it is really like – what types of calls the office gets and what type of casework is handled,” Cruz explained. “For me, this looks like something I would be interested in pursuing long-term and I am excited for that. I am grateful for this opportunity.”
Looking ahead to her senior year at Polk State, Cruz expressed excitement for a new opportunity to participate in the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Program. This is a grant-funded project supported by Mexico’s Fundación Banorte, Fundación Gruma, and the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
Polk State and the Instituto Tecnológico de Merida have partnered to provide students with project-based learning activities focused on comparative analyses leading to reduced inequality, increased financial inclusion, and enhanced cross-cultural understanding in business.
“To receive this opportunity is truly an honor and I am actually one of a few students in our class at Polk State who speaks Spanish, so I am able to help my peers out with communication,” Cruz said.
If there’s one thing others can take away from Cruz’s story, it is to take advantage of all the opportunities available through Polk State College.
“Don’t settle,” she expressed. “There’s a lot to learn and experience out there. Even if right now is not the right time for you, you have a lifetime ahead of you, so take it at your own pace and remain open to new opportunities.”
Information about interning with Congressman Soto is available online at soto.house.gov/services/internships. Information about Polk State internships is available online at www.polk.edu/internship-program.