Lora B. Martin’s life is full of reasons she should have given up on a college education — but time after time she refused.
Even as she became a wife, a mother of two, a successful businesswoman and divorcee, she persisted, clinging to her dream of a degree.
When she finally made her way to Polk State College — a place where she immediately felt she belonged — everything aligned perfectly for Martin, and that dream became a reality.
Now, as she explains for this edition of Pride of Polk, she’s using her reign as a state beauty pageant queen to help others get there, too. Because she knows, no matter how difficult their road to graduation may be, if they just keep trying, they’ll reach their destination.
“I do believe that getting a college degree is essential. No matter what has happened in your life, you can go back and get that degree. There are infinite ways to make it work,” she said.
Growing up in Tampa, Martin, 32, always saw higher education and a professional career in her future. Neither of her parents had gone to college; her dad is a tollbooth attendant and her mom once worked as a bookbinder. Still, for herself, Martin saw earning a college degree as inevitable.
“I was the first person in my family to go to college. I always had a voice in my head, telling me this was just something you did,” she said.
When she was 7, Martin recalled, she decided to be a lawyer. She doesn’t remember what inspired the interest in law, but something about it caught her early and wouldn’t let her go. In a testament to her tenacity, when she earned her driver’s license and could drive to a job, she cold-called law firms until she got hired.
“I opened the phone book up under ‘attorney’ and just started calling law firms, telling them that I wanted to come work for them and be a lawyer one day,” she said. “One of them told me to come in for an interview. I worked six hours on that first day and continued working there for more than three years.”
After high school, however, life took her in a different direction. She got married, had her son, and found a new professional passion in government procurement. She began in the field with a job at the Pasco County School Board. She now holds five professional certifications and is the southeast regional manager for National IPA, a cooperative purchasing organization for government agencies and nonprofits.
Five years after high school, in the midst of divorcing her first husband, she finally enrolled at Pasco-Hernando Community College.
“It was definitely hard to go to school, work, and then come home and do all the mom duties that are expected,” she said. “I just had to always make my education a priority.”
In 2006, she relocated to Polk County to work for the Polk County School Board. With the move came a transfer to Polk State College — an institution that would leave an indelible impression on her life.
“The College gave me a sense of being. I still get teary-eyed when I talk about my experience. It really helped me find myself. I didn’t know who I was when I started, but it gave me a sense of belonging and purpose, and it helped me feel connected to people,” she said.
“As soon as I set foot on campus, I felt welcome. I needed to feel that I mattered to someone — and I mattered at Polk State College.”
Martin also credited the Polk State College Foundation with helping her receive a scholarship for first-generation college students, which alleviated the financial burden of higher education, helping ease her path to a degree.
At Polk, she thrived. She regularly represented the Foundation in the community and was president of the Polk State chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society for two-year colleges. She said participating in Polk State President Eileen Holden’s 2007 inauguration is still a cherished memory.
If Polk State changed Martin, she certainly left her mark here, too, according to Marianne George, director of development and alumni relations.
“Most everybody thinks of the traditional 18-year-old as the typical college student, but more and more here, it’s a mom with kids. She was a nontraditional student, working and raising her children, and still going to school and participating on campus. She was the face of our students today, making her a perfect fit to represent the Foundation,” she said.
In 2009, a decade after high school and by then a mom of two, all of Martin’s hard work and struggle finally paid off when she earned her Associate in Arts degree.
Still undaunted — could anything ever stop her? — Martin is now pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Business Administration through St. Leo University. She is completing her coursework online, which is an important element of her message; in today’s world of education, classes are offered online and non-traditional hours, making it easier than ever for nontraditional students to get their degrees.
As has become her way of life, she’s juggling her education with her children, job, and ongoing relationship with Polk State; she spoke at the College’s Graduate Polk breakfast for area employers this spring.
She also has a new responsibility as the reigning Ms. Florida American Dream; American Dream is a beauty pageant that promotes a positive outlook on life, family values and community involvement.
Her pageant platform is higher education, and she uses her regular speaking engagements to encourage others — especially women — to never abandon their dreams of a college degree. The crux of her message is also her personal motto: “Dream, Believe, Achieve and Inspire.”
“You have to have a dream. You have to believe that you can reach. You have to work hard; dreams don’t just happen. Then you have to inspire others to do the same. You have to pay it forward,” she said.
Earlier this year, Martin spoke to students in a Family Dynamics class at Lake Gibson High School.
“She talked about being a young parent and how she had her family before she went to college,” said Melinda Baine, director of the school’s Academy of Future Educators.
“It was very inspirational for the students. She talked about how even if you have a family in high school or right after high school, you can still go on and have a successful life.”
Yes, Martin said, no matter your personal circumstances, if you make higher education a priority in your life, it will happen. You just have to dream, believe and then achieve — and then inspire.
“I have a story that I love telling about my son. His nickname is ‘pumpkin head’ and he’s getting to an age where he doesn’t like that nickname anymore. One day he said to me, ‘I don’t want you to call me ‘pumpkin head’ at my high school graduation,’” she said.
“I told him, ‘I told him, ‘OK, I won’t call you that if you graduate from high school with a full-ride college scholarship.’ Then he asked me how he could make that happen. I toldhim you have to work really hard every day and that the choices you make now are important. You have to make college a part of your everyday discussion to make it happen.”