Ciera Baldwin was hesitant when her mother encouraged her in middle school to one day enroll at Polk State Lakeland Collegiate High School, where she could complete her high school diploma and her associate degree simultaneously.
Her concerns included whether she would receive traditional high school experiences such as participating in athletics and attending student events and if balancing high school classes with college courses would be too challenging.
“I realized I could still play sports and get involved in the Student Government Association and Student Activities Board, which swayed me,” Baldwin said. “I also want students to know – don’t think you’re not smart enough to be in college. You can do this. You can come to Lakeland Collegiate, save yourself two years of money, and fast track your success.”
That was important to Baldwin’s mom, who passed away before it was time for her to make the decision as a junior in high school to enroll at Lakeland Collegiate. Polk State’s three collegiate high schools serve 11th and 12th graders on the College’s Lakeland and Winter Haven campuses. The majority of students graduate with their Polk State Associate in Arts degrees in addition to their high school diplomas.
“Don’t think you’re not smart enough to be in college. You can do this. You can come to Lakeland Collegiate, save yourself two years of money, and fast track your success.”
“In my family, you are expected to go to college,” Baldwin said. “It’s the ‘only way’ in my family and for me, Lakeland Collegiate was the ‘only way’ I could financially do this. I did it because not only was it what my mom wanted, but it also helped to take the burden of paying for school off my dad as a single parent.”
The Polk State Lakeland Collegiate experience proves even more beneficial than the initial cost savings.
Baldwin added that Polk State’s collegiate high schools prepare students for success in their future endeavors by instilling discipline, work ethic, and a support system of peers, professors, and staff.
She graduated with her Polk State Associate in Arts degree and enrolled at a nearby university; however, she quickly felt as if “I was only a student ID number,” she explained. It was a no-brainer for her to transfer back to Polk State to complete her Bachelor of Science in Supervision and Management with a concentration in Business Administration.
“I felt lost at [the university]. When I came back to Polk, I did a complete 360,” she said. “Everyone at Polk State supports one another and you are not just a number.”
Baldwin was struggling to pay for her higher education, despite having two years of free college under her belt. And while Polk State’s tuition is approximately one-third of the cost of state universities, Baldwin had exhausted much of her financial resources at her former university.
With the motivation of her peers, she became secretary of the Student Government Association (SGA) on the Lakeland Campus and ultimately served as SGA President – an opportunity that helped to afford her a scholarship from the Polk State Foundation to complete her degree.
As President of SGA, she spoke during Polk State President Angela Garcia Falconetti’s inauguration in 2018.
“After losing my mom at the age of 15, my entire world was turned upside down. The dreams that I once had felt more like fairytales rather than obtainable goals,” Baldwin shared with an audience of Foundation donors. “My dad was left as a single parent, unprepared to get three children through college, let alone life. My only option was to work hard in school to produce the grades that would attract colleges and scholarships.”
Even with a 4.2 grade-point average, Baldwin recalled the uncertainty of her future when she started her higher education journey without any financial backing.
“I was discouraged… and wrestled with the constant thought that I would never be able to call my dreams my realities,” she said. “But just when I thought there was no way possible to find the funds necessary to continue my education, I was sent to the Foundation… which made it possible for me to continue my journey through higher education and to not only make my mom and my family proud but to also make myself proud.”
During her time at Polk State, Baldwin worked in the Admissions Office and was part of the Student Activities Board in addition to her role in SGA.
She achieved her Bachelor of Science in Supervision and Management in May 2019 and touts Polk State and Lakeland Collegiate High School for providing affordable access to quality higher education.
“Coming out of high school with your diploma and two-year degree puts you ahead of the game,” Baldwin said. “While my journey has been rocky, I have been able to overcome challenges thanks to the head start Lakeland Collegiate gave me and the strong foundation I built for myself here.”
Polk State Lakeland Collegiate High School and Polk State Chain of Lakes Collegiate High School will host information sessions in February for students interested in attending for the 2021-2022 Academic Year. More information is available at www.polk.edu/news/polk-state-collegiate-high-schools-will-hold-info-sessions-in-february.