Ashley Price had many reasons not to re-enroll at Polk State College.
She works. She has a son. She is the primary caregiver to her grandparents. Money is tight. Time is even tighter. The word “tired” doesn’t even begin to cover how she feels most days.
But every time Price thought about her reasons not to return to college, she thought about this: One day, her son, Shawn, might have to write a school essay about his family.
“If he does, I want him to have good things to say,” Price said. “I want him to be proud.”
Price began at Polk State College a few years ago, but had to stop attending classes when the health of her grandparents, now 90 and 88, faltered. It was another delay, another unexpected turn of plans, but like she’s done so many times before, Price refused to give up on her dreams for an education.
Price, 28, graduated from Lake Wales High School in 2005. Just a few months later, she became a mother.
“I wanted to go to the Navy,” said Price, explaining she comes from a long line of military servicemen and women. “But having Shawn changed everything. I was scared, terrified. I didn’t know what to expect.”
To support her newborn baby, Price went to work at a local drug store and was training to become a pharmacy technician. When Shawn was 11 months old, just as Price was settling into the rhythm of working motherhood, he was diagnosed with stage-three neuroblastoma, a form of cancer that grows in nerve cells.
Shawn underwent surgery and months of chemotherapy. Price quit her job and stayed by his side.
“I would just sit with him and play with him, anything to comfort him,” she said.
Shawn has been cancer-free ever since. He needed physical therapy to learn to walk, talk and eat after his treatments, but since then he’s thrived. Just the other day, Price said, he told a family acquaintance that one day he “wants to work for Microsoft.”
“What 9-year-old even knows what Microsoft is?” Price said, marveling at her son’s ambition.
In 2011, with her son headed to kindergarten, Price finally had the chance to get her own education back on track. She started classes at Polk State, taking two classes in Winter Haven and two at the Polk State JD Alexander Center.
Later that same year, her grandparents’ health began to fade. Price’s own mother died when she was a child. Her grandparents raised her. They had given her and Shawn a place to live. When they needed her, she was going to be there. She quit her classes and focused entirely on working and taking care of her family.
This summer, she finally returned to Polk State. She and her family couldn’t wait any longer for her to get a college degree.
“I work part time as a store clerk, making minimum wage,” she said. “It’s hard to make ends meet. I’m working only to exist, not to live.”
By returning to school, Price has taken on an ambitious schedule. Four days a week, she makes the mile-long walk to and from her grandparents’ house for classes at the Polk State JD Alexander Center. She works eight-hour shifts each Friday, Saturday and Sunday. What little time she has left is dedicated to Shawn, her fiancé, Curtis, and her grandparents.
At this rate, it will take her two to three years to reach her goal: an Associate in Science degree in Computer Systems and Business Analysis. A lot could happen between now and then, but no matter what life brings her, Price isn’t giving up.
“Without the Polk State JD Alexander Center right here in Lake Wales, and without the affordability of the classes and the financial aid I’ve received, I wouldn’t stand a chance of going back to college and having a career,” she said. “Because of Polk State, I’m going to have a better life — for my son and my family.”
In Lake Wales, Polk State College operates the Polk State JD Alexander Center and the Polk State Lake Wales Arts Center.