Polk State professor uses “Wall of Fame” to inspire students

Posted on by Polk Newsroom

Polk State College Anatomy and Physiology Professor Dr. Anthony Rizzo hopes that a spot on the wall will keep his students from thinking small.

In 2019, Rizzo started his “Wall of Fame” in the Science Building (WSC) on the Winter Haven Campus. Rizzo places a photo and short bio for each Polk State student who goes on to join a doctorate program.

“I have an awful lot of students who think that Polk State is not a springboard to something more complete,” Rizzo explained. “There’s nothing incomplete about an associate degree, but most students tell me on day one what they want to be. I really want a place to show people they can make it if they wish it.”

The salutatorian at Polk State Chain of Lakes Collegiate High School in 2016, Tori Whiting, recalled having doubts. She’s since earned her bachelor’s degree in molecular biology from the University of South Florida (USF) and is currently enrolled in medical school at Oakland University in Rochester Hills, Mich.

“I was told before I enrolled at Polk State that if I went there, I’d be stuck and never go on to a big university,” she said. “I was definitely inspired by his wall of fame. Knowing people came before me and went on to medical school allowed me to dream.”

Dr. Kayla Byrd, another member of the wall, has been a practicing physical therapist at Interactiv Children’s Therapy in Newnan, Ga. since September. Like Whiting, she graduated from Polk State Chain of Lakes Collegiate High School before going on to earn her bachelor’s degree from USF. She completed her doctorate at Emory University in Atlanta last year.“I’m very honored to be part of the wall,” she said. “Dr. Rizzo was my favorite professor ever. (The picture was taken at) my white coat ceremony and I texted it to him and he asked to put it on the wall. I look up to him as a mentor. Dr. Rizzo is great.”

In total, the wall has eight members. Rizzo wishes he had more room for those in master’s programs or working as physician’s assistants.

“Sometimes, it’s hard to emphasize how powerful we are as a starting point,” Rizzo noted. “I want my students to see that they can go on and do whatever they want. Seeing these people go from collegiate high school students to doctors is fantastic. It’s incredible.”

While Rizzo notes that there is a perception that Polk State may be small, he and his former say the College allows students to know professors better, get more individualized help, and more hands-on learning. At bigger universities, Rizzo pointed out, classes are often taught by teaching assistants and graduate students.

“The best professors you ever have will be at Polk State,” Byrd said. “It’s a more personal relationship with smaller class sizes. For anyone in these programs, I would say get to know them and take advantage of your time with them. They’re an invaluable resource.”

“Dr. Rizzo is one of my greatest mentors,” Whiting said. “Without him, I’m not sure I’d be in med school right now. He taught in a way where everyone could learn. The knowledge was never too far out of reach. He had a unique way of making very difficult subject matter into something simple that could be easily understood.”

Rizzo said that he stays in contact with many of his former students, including each of the eight currently profiled on the wall. Byrd said Rizzo came to speak before one of her pre-med groups when she was a student at USF. For Whiting, Rizzo wrote a letter of recommendation for her graduate program.

“I remember talking with him about going into medical school in his office and whether or not that was feasible for me,” Whiting said. “He had time for all of his students and no one was ever left behind. He goes above and beyond for all of his students. We knew we could stop by his office any time and get honest feedback.”

Set to graduate in 2024, Whiting hopes to work as a neurologist. As for Byrd, she currently works with children with chronic pain. She said Polk State set her on the path for the job she now loves.

“Seeing progress with kids is a lot different than adults,” Byrd explained. “Where adults are more short-term, you get to develop a relationship with (the children) and work with them for years. It’s been very rewarding.”

A retired Air Force colonel, Rizzo has worked at Polk State since 2013. Others featured on his wall are Kennedy Mohs, Kelly Nguyen, Karlee Thompson McDonnell, Jacquezz Nickerson, Leah Nicholson, and Brianne Snider. Rizzo said other students have taken an interest in the board.

“I’d say there’s been four or five times where I’ve had a student see the board, come in, and talk about what they want for themselves,” he said. “I’m just so proud of these people.”