For students at the Polk State JD Alexander Center, it’s all about location. Without Polk State College’s presence in the Lake Wales community, many students would not be pursuing their higher education because they would not be able to access or afford it. While a commute to Winter Haven or Lakeland may not seem far to some, for those who lack transportation and time in their schedules to make the trek, the distance is a mountainous obstacle between them and their higher education.
During the 2017 Legislative Session, the nearly 1,100 students the Center serves each year were at risk of losing the place that has grown to be much more than a hub for learning – the Polk State JD Alexander Center is a “family” that has “opened opportunities” for residents of Southeast Polk County to “transform their lives,” as students put it. Polk State News met with several students at the Polk State JD Alexander Center to hear how the location is allowing them to pursue their higher education and how without it, those pursuits would not be possible.
Despite graduating from Lake Wales High School in 2013 with a 4.1 grade-point average and honors, Valentina Gutierrez didn’t think she would go to college.
No one in her family had pursued higher education, and it seemed financially out of reach for Gutierrez, whose biggest goal is to find a full-time, decent-paying job with benefits to help support her parents, her two younger brothers, and herself.
Polk State College’s job placement and continuing education rate is 95.5 percent, and on average, Polk State graduates earn wages 2.3 times more than the average entry-level wage for Polk County.
“But I didn’t know about the admission process; I didn’t know about financial aid,” Gutierrez explained. “My family isn’t good financially and going to college seemed nearly impossible.”
“I didn’t know about the admission process; I didn’t know about financial aid. My family isn’t good financially and going to college seemed nearly impossible.”
She visited the Polk State JD Alexander Center, which at the time served Gutierrez as a community center, as it does for many Lake Wales residents and high school students who seek tutoring, testing, and other services.
An advisor recommended Gutierrez take the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test (PERT) and the results were so encouraging, Gutierrez’s father sold one of the family’s vehicles to pay for her first four classes.
While this opened the door to Gutierrez’s higher education, it made transportation to school and work difficult. More than 38 percent of Polk County’s population is categorized as “transportation disadvantaged” by the Polk Transportation Planning Organization, as they do not have a reliable means of transportation.
And that was only one of the challenges the Gutierrez family faced. At the time, Gutierrez’s father had recently been laid off from work as the supervisor of a sod farm. Her mother is a stay-at-home mom.
In 2015, things started looking up for the Gutierrezs when her father found work with a locally-owned business. But when the owner became ill and the business closed, he found himself unemployed again.
“There was so much stress on my father, he had a stroke,” Gutierrez said. “He has memory loss and a hard time walking, and is unable to work indefinitely.”
Gutierrez now works three jobs to support her family while pursuing her Bachelor of Applied Science in Supervision and Management with a concentration in Business Administration. She received her Polk State Associate in Arts degree in 2016 with honors.
Thanks to the proximity of the Polk State JD Alexander Center to her home in Lake Wales, the College’s affordability and flexible schedule options, and Gutierrez’s ability to receive financial aid as a low-income, first-generation-in-college student, she successfully balances all of her responsibilities.
She utilizes the College’s Fastrack option, which allows her to take a semester’s-load of hybrid courses in eight weeks. The classes meet four times and allow students to complete the remainder of their courses online.
This gives Gutierrez the time to work as a tutor in the Teaching Learning Computing Center (TLCC) at the Polk State JD Alexander Center, as a tax associate at H&R Block in Lake Wales, and as a sales associate at JCPenney at the Eagle Ridge Mall.
“Without the Polk State JD Alexander Center, my life would be even harder. Students and the community would lose something very important without it.”
“Without the Polk State JD Alexander Center, my life would be even harder,” Gutierrez explained. “My car is not in the greatest condition to drive to another location for my classes and I wouldn’t be able to afford the time or gas to get there.”
“Plus I would be losing a job and a family here at the Center if it were to ever close,” she added. “Students and the community would lose something very important without it.”
Gutierrez is modest when asked about her future plans.
“My hope is to find a full-time, good-paying job so that I can make life easier for my family,” she said. “Thanks to the Polk State JD Alexander Center, I will be able to do that with my degree.”