Polk State’s ELITE Educational Leadership Enhancement Program, which has contributed to nearly two-dozen promotions, numerous college-wide initiatives, and a newly established scholarship fund for students, is now taking applications for its eighth class.
“It is amazing to watch what happens to ELITE participants during the course of the program,” said Valparisa Baker, director of equity and diversity and coordinator of ELITE.
“They hone their skills. They discover new talents they never thought were within them. They grow as individuals, but also form lasting bonds with one another. What else can I say except that the professionals who take part in this program truly are ELITE.”
Polk State’s ELITE Educational Leadership Enhancement Program was established at the College in 2006 as part of a statewide initiative among colleges and universities to provide professional development and leadership opportunities to mid-level minority and female employees.
Since ELITE began, 33 employees have participated. They represent practically every area of the College, including Advising, the collegiate high schools, Health Sciences, the Polk State College Foundation, and Student Financial Services, to name just a few.
ELITE participants — or “ambassadors” as they’re known around campus — begin their experience in October with a three-day professional development conference. Participants from similar programs at the College’s partner institutions, including College of Central Florida, Hillsborough Community College, Lake-Sumter State College, Pasco-Hernando Community College, and Florida International University, also attend the conference.
At the conference, ELITE ambassadors hear from guest speakers who have taken part in leadership programs and have since achieved professional advancement. The event also serves as a networking opportunity.
“The opening conference allows ELITE ambassadors to establish a bond with leadership participants from other educational institutions. They also get to meet with presidents and vice presidents from the other schools and speak candidly with them. It’s a forum for our ambassadors to ask what they will and learn from the experiences of proven leaders,” Baker said.
Following the fall’s kickoff event, ELITE ambassadors return home to Polk State, where they commence a nearly yearlong series of leadership sessions and a mentorship with a Polk State administrator.
During the spring, ELITE ambassadors spend several days in Tallahassee, meeting with lawmakers and learning about the state’s legislative process.
All the while, ELITE participants also develop a project that would have widespread impact on the College. Participants are encouraged to focus their projects on an area outside their daily work or department to become better acquainted with the various facets of the institution, build their professional network, and stretch their leadership skills.
ELITE ends with a leadership conference that reconvenes participants from the various institutions. Participants not only hear from another slate of guest speakers, but must also present their projects — overcoming any fears of public speaking in the process.
It all adds up to a bundle of experiences that help propel participants in their careers. Since ELITE began, in addition to the 18 participants who have been promoted, another two have taken leadership positions at other educational institutions.
Class V participant Carlos Parra was promoted to director of student activities and leadership at Polk after his ELITE experience, and has since moved on to Broward College, where he works as a campus director of student life.
“One of the best parts of ELITE is the chance to network and learning not to be afraid to walk up to someone you don’t know and say, ‘Hi, I’m Carlos,’” he said. “Once you establish those connections, you always have people you can go to for help. I also learned to look at things from the 50,000-foot level, not just the campus level.”
Also promoted within the College was Jessica Buchanan, a Class VI ambassador who recently took a job as career development and internship coordinator at Berea College in Kentucky.
“ELITE helps you understand your strengths and your value,” Buchanan said. “It gives you confidence and a support system. A lot of times, we might believe in ourselves, but knowing that others believe in us too is very inspiring.”
Patrice Thigpen, guidance counselor at Polk State Lakeland Collegiate High School, also participated in Class VI, and said ELITE helped her think outside the box of her daily job.
“It’s easy to stay in your little place and let the big guys do what they do,” she said. “But ELITE gave me more confidence to approach people for help if I need to.”
Thigpen also said ELITE helped her develop critical-thinking skills that she uses daily to evaluate her workflow, looking for ways to be more efficient.
Claudy Fenelon added that his experiences in Class V sharpened his communication skills, which helped him achieve his promotion to academic adviser at Polk State Lakeland from transition specialist for TRiO Student Support Services.
Previous ELITE participants and positions to which they’ve been promoted also include: Sallie Brisbane, director of Polk State Lakeland Collegiate High School; Bridget Fetter, director of Polk State Chain of Lakes Collegiate High School; Christina Fullerton, director of TLCC and Learning Resources at Polk State Winter Haven; Cheryl Garnett, director of the Polk State JD Alexander Center; Rick Jeffries, assistant director of Polk State Chain of Lakes Collegiate High School; Kristen Jernigan, instruction and e-learning librarian at Polk State Lakeland; Kathy Jessie, coordinator of the TLCC at the Polk State JD Alexander Center; LaTrice Moore, entrepreneurship coordinator; Carole Shelton-Toney, coordinator of veteran services; Melvin Thompson, district director of the Student Activities and Leadership Office; Karen Walfall, senior academic adviser; Mary Westgate, coordinator of special services for students.
Members of ELITE Class VII included Internship Coordinator Lynn Chisholm, Nursing Professor Louanne Harto, Financial Aid Supervisor Ronshetta Howell, Academic Success Counselor Cate Igo, English Professor Orathai Northern, Director of Communications Rachel Pleasant, and Academic Adviser Yevette Thornton.
Though they’ve just wrapped up their experience in the program, there is already much evidence of Class VII’s college-wide impact. Just two examples: Igo was the driving force behind the recent First Flight Convocation, which more than 800 new freshmen attended, and Northern collaborated with the Foundation on an ongoing employee-giving campaign.
Class VII also established the ELITE Legacy Scholarship to recognize one student a year who shows leadership potential, personal character and integrity, a commitment to community service, and overall reflects the vision and mission of the ELITE leadership program.
“Each year, ELITE gets better and better, and that was definitely true of ELITE Class VII. That group really took this program to the next level. Their projects have been tremendous. Their desire and persistence in going beyond what the program requires to make an impact on this College is just astounding. I can’t say enough about the growth I witnessed in this most recent class,” Baker said.
ELITE is a program of particular interest for Polk State President Eileen Holden because it is modeled after the LEAP — Leadership Enhancement Advancement Program — at Palm Beach State College.
In 1994, while working as division chair over the largest academic unit at Palm Beach, Holden was selected to participate in LEAP.
“Participating in the program allowed me to interact with colleagues in similar and higher positions at neighboring colleges and to explore the leadership and management styles of successful leaders. My career goal at the time was to become a dean for academic affairs, and I saw this professional development opportunity as a way to chart that course,” she said.
“It was through that experience that I was able to ‘step away’ from the daily operational aspects of my job to focus on examining the key characteristics that are aligned with good leaders. The program provided many opportunities for me to develop both professionally and personally. In 1997, I was promoted to dean of academic affairs (at Palm Beach) and was very grateful for the program.”
Potential ELITE participants must have at least a baccalaureate degree and must have worked at the College for at least two years, including one year in their current positions. Potential participants must also plan to remain at the College for at least one year after they complete ELITE. Applications for ELITE are available by contacting Baker at extension 5378 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The application deadline is Sept. 3.