Despite being best friends for the last 32 years, they’ve only been working together for four months. McElrath began as a staff accountant for Polk State College in February. Young has worked at Polk State since 2012 and is currently a professor of Computer Science. They are also both alumni of the College.
“All these years, we never lost contact,” McElrath said. “As a kid, I was with her family a lot. We all became family. We’ve got to watch each other grow.”
Young said McElrath decided they would be friends from the first second they met.
Young moved from North Carolina to Polk County when she was in seventh grade following the death of her mother in 1990. When she sat in a Kathleen Middle School classroom for the first time, she was instantly greeted by McElrath.
“I just sat down when I looked at this girl in front of me,” Young recalled. “She asked me like 35 questions in 10 seconds and I didn’t know what to say. Coming from a different state, I didn’t know what the people here were like.”
Since meeting in that middle school classroom, their friendship has never wavered. Their differences, however, are many. As the owner of two businesses, Young has an entrepreneurial spirit while McElrath is more community-minded and a member of multiple civic organizations. She’s in the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Florida and serves as the Education chair, Freedom Fund Banquet chair for the NAACP’s Lakeland chapter, and a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority and Treasurer of New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in Lakeland.
“Mary has been such a joy for me to have in my life,” Young said. “She’s the one friend I can count on to give me honest advice and not just tell me what I want to hear. I have so much confidence in her.”
McElrath holds five college degrees – two associate, two bachelor’s, and one master’s – and is also a graduate of the police academy. A former corrections officer, law enforcement officer and schoolteacher, McElrath has long been a model for success and a pillar of stability. Young found herself later in life but it is her life, McElrath said, that is more intriguing.
“She’s been in the Navy; she’s traveled,” McElrath said. “I feel like I’ve lived vicariously through her. I’m not as vocal or as much of a go-getter in some areas, but I always love hearing her stories. She’s also a good cook.”
McElrath was just out of high school when she passed the law enforcement academy at Polk State College and spent five years as a detention and patrol deputy before spending 14 years as a teacher. Young initially wasn’t sure what direction she wanted to go, so she asked her best friend for advice.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do after high school, so I asked her because she was so career-oriented,” Young said. “She said to go to the military, but I didn’t want to go to the military. Low and behold, that’s what I did and it’s the best choice I ever made.”
Young spent six years in the U.S. Navy from 1998 to 2004. For the first several years out of the military, Young was unsure of what to do next. She worked a handful of jobs and had her two children, son Chance and daughter Eshae. In 2012, she was hired by Polk State College where she also enrolled as a student. The U.S. Military paid all the tuition.
Inspiring one another
“So many people took me under their wings and just showed me so much love, because they wanted me to finish and they wanted me to be successful,” Young said. “That just shows you the kind of environment that Polk State is. (Business Administration Program Director) Maria Lehoczky treated me as her own child.”
Young completed her associate degree in 2014 from Polk State before earning her Bachelor of Applied Science in Supervision and Management with a concentration in Business Information Technology in 2016. She graduated summa cum laude when she earned both degrees. In 2018, Young earned her master’s in Information Technology from Nova Southeastern University – the same school where McElrath earned her master’s in Management and Administration of Educational Programs just four years earlier in 2014.
As influential as McElrath had been on Young, one of her career choices was guided by an unlikely source. Young was 35 years old when she discovered that a longtime family friend, George Brown, was her biological father. Brown was an accomplished electrical engineer and inspired Young to look into the field of technology – in Computer Science Network Engineering.
Young owns an information technology company, which is called Data BITS. The latter part of the company name is an acronym for Business Information Technology Solutions. She’s also the owner and publisher of “My HooD Magazine,” which highlights independent hip hop artists in communities throughout the country.
“A lot of people in my community don’t know that I’m a professor,” Young said. “They think I’m in the music industry.”
For McElrath, life is offering new beginnings. In addition to a new career in accounting at Polk State, her youngest child, Jeremiah Jackson, a state wrestling champion at Kathleen High School, will soon be moving to Colorado Springs to attend and play football at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Here for the students
“There are so many new things happening,” she said. “I love what I’m doing. I’m very happy here. I don’t work directly with students (at Polk State), but to be able to help them has been rewarding.”
Helping students has also been a priority for Young. While college degrees are important, Young has prioritized getting her students real-world experience. She’s previously worked with companies like Florida’s Natural and Lakeland Electric to get students paid internships and job opportunities while they study.
“Once you get your degree, you’re still at the bottom of the totem pole,” Young said. “It’s really important for our students to leave with experience and not just a degree. That’s part of my mission here at Polk State.”
Another commonality shared between the two longtime friends is hair style. Although not styled the same way, both sport “Sisterlocks” – small locks of hair that are flexible and easy to style. McElrath wears them as a statement.
“There’s always been social pressure on Black women, men and children to not wear their natural hair in the workplace, school, etc.,” she said. “It’s an effort for solidarity and to encourage Black women that it’s OK to wear your natural hair.”
From career choices to parenting to faith, McElrath has long been a source of advice and wisdom for her best friend. McElrath, however, has contemplated following in Young’s footsteps in other areas. She has thought about becoming a professor one day and also trying her hand at entrepreneurship.
McElrath’s daughter, Miracle, owns a shop called “My Wet Dog” in South Carolina which specializes in organic pet shampoo and treats. The owner of a cat named Thomas Gray, McElrath has thought about creating a cat café with treats for other cat owners.
“She’s a good career person, she’s a good community person, she’s a good mother,” Young said of her friend. “I don’t think there’s anything she can’t do.”
Despite being close for more than three decades, it’s been rare for McElrath and Young to be part of the same organization. One of the few instances was in high school when both were members of Upward Bound, an organization that provides students with academic help, professional mentoring, and the chance to visit college campuses. Upward Bound is funded by the U.S. Department of Education and currently offered at Polk State. Due to an incident, however, McElrath could not continue the program.
“She didn’t do anything bad,” Young said. “That was one of the bad things, because she got me into Upward Bound and she couldn’t finish the program with me.”
McElrath and Young are part of the same organization once again at Polk State College. Young works on the Lakeland Campus while McElrath works on the Winter Haven Campus. Still, Young said she’s happy they’re part of the same team.
“When Polk State sees talent, they grab it,” she said. “You’re not always going to find a workplace that cares about their people the way they do here.”
“It’s the camaraderie that keeps us together,” McElrath said.