POLKcast: The importance of Polk State in Lake Wales with Andy Oguntola
POLKcast: Andy Oguntola
MF: Madison Fantozzi
LB: Leah Bartholomay
AO: Andy Oguntola
MF Wait, I do have a red light on my mic. Is that always there? I’ve never noticed.
LB Yeah, that’s always there.
MF Yeah, I’ve only done this 25 times. I’ve never noticed.
MF Welcome back to POLKcast, I’m your host, Madison Fantozzi.
LB And I’m your co-host, Leah Barthalome.
MF And today we’re joined by Dr. Andy Oguntola, Director of the Polk State JD Alexander Center, the college’s Lake Wales Campus that serves approximately 1,100 students each year, and many of those students are transportation disadvantaged or low income, so the proximity of the campus to their homes in South East Polk County is very critical. And so Andy joined the college in 2016 after earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Webber International University, and he recently achieved his doctorate in education from Nova Southeastern, so congratulations on that.
AO Thank you.
MF And thank you for joining us today.
AO Absolutely, it’s an honor, an honor to be here.
MF Awesome, and so this season of POLKcast focuses on the many services and resources Polk State provides for students, and while some of those are more obvious, such as financial aid or scholarships, or all that good stuff, it’s really important that Polk State remains accessible to everyone in Polk County, because that’s obviously part of our mission, and so the Lake Wales Campus provides, you know, education right there in the community for those people who can’t make it, necessarily, over here to the Winter Haven Campus or to Lakeland. So can you talk to us a little bit about what the Polk State JD Alexander Center has for our students in Lake Wales?
AO Absolutely, you know, many times, you think about the JD Alexander Center, you ask yourself, “What does this offer?” You know, we have a full range of courses you can take, but at the same time, you’re guaranteed to earn your AA degree at the Lake JDA campus. Also, too, we’re a central location that houses and assists many cities around us like, Frostproof, Haines City, Davenport area, for the students out there. Winter Haven sometimes. But most importantly, Lake Wales. Our Lake Wales students are to die for.
You know, I love them, inside and out. We assist with dual enrollment courses. You can take our dual enrollment courses there. We have bachelor level courses, some elementary education courses, anything you can think of we’re trying to offer. We offer science courses as well. We don’t have a lab, right, so you ask yourself, how do you be creative? So we offer courses like oceanography, through a lab component. We’re offering a new course, a Chemistry 10-20 that doesn’t have a lab component, so students don’t have to worry about driving to the lake when their driving from to try to take courses need to be successful in achieving their AA degree at JDA.
MF Awesome. Something that I thought was cool that I recently saw were there was that you guys actually have, is it called Life Size?
MF Where the students go there, but they’re Skyping pretty much or video chatting with the professor who’s leading a class from one of our other campuses. How does that work? Like where did that idea come up?
AO Great question. It’s pretty amazing. So we have, pretty much we partner with Lakeland Campus to offer some of our education components, because we know the Lakeland Campus houses the education program there for the bachelor’s degree. So we have some Lake Wales who want to be teachers one day. They want to take EPI courses. So let’s say for instance they can’t get to Lakeland. So they created an opportunity. We have Life Size in one of our classrooms. That’s two big screens for those who don’t know what Life Size is.
Two huge 70 inch TV monitors with a recorder. It has microphones all over the classrooms, spread out spontaneously, so students on a, if it’s a Monday, Wednesday course, on Monday, half of the students are at JDA, and the other students are in Lakeland, and the professor swaps, you know, on a daily basis. They can raise their hands, ask questions, interact with the class, so using the whole live experience but at the same time shows us how we can use our technology to a better advantage for our students.
MF Really cool.
AO So it takes some from the students who don’t have the transportation, who don’t have a car. We know that there is no bus ride in Lake Wales currently. You can’t jump on the bus and just go to Lakeland. So because of that, we offer that. Students love it. They fell in love with it The course is pretty hot. And hopefully, down the future, we can think about some other courses we can do that with and partner with the Winter Haven campus down the road.
LB Think about the future. We thought there would be like, you know, flying cars, but instead, we have digital classrooms.
AO Absolutely, absolutely.
LB As someone who is not originally from Florida or Polk County, it’s crazy how big it is and how vast it is. So, you know, we are Polk State College, but then it’s like there’s all these little areas like Lake Wales and Frostproof and Babson Park that are super spread out. So I think that’s awesome.
That’s really, you know, ’cause everyone just thinks oh, the Winter Haven Campus and the Lakeland Campus. And those are where like the bigger city-type things are, but it’s really awesome to have that opportunity.
AO Yeah, I’d even say the main things some people don’t understand is how big Polk County actually is.
AO Polk County is large.
AO You know, I was working in Orlando for a long time, almost five to six years. In that process, I would go sometimes, I would live in Lake Wales and drive past, and at first, I didn’t know what JDA was, ’cause I never really come down downtown Lake Wales.
AO And so when I saw the opportunity to get involved with Polk State, I had to jump on board. And be able to, you know, work five minutes from your home and seeing the members of the community actually help. I tell people all the time, when you work and live in locations such as JDA and Lake Wales, and you go to Walmart and see the students at Walmart.
You go to Publix and see the students at Publix. You see your faculty members shopping. You can have those conversations. We have a phenomenal math professor who everybody is in love with, Professor Aleman, where he goes shopping all the time. His math students ask him questions in the store. He doesn’t get mad at all. He assists.
AO He takes care of it. And that’s what we offer. You know, we’re not a huge campus. You know, we don’t have, you know 60,000 square feet right? We’re just big enough. We’re five classrooms to serve the students who need it the most.
And that’s what we offer. We offer an opportunity for you to get your degree, feel at home, a family opportunity. We don’t have the biggest spaces, but we offer the best technology and the best service in my opinion.
LB Yeah, that’s awesome.
MF Yeah, I think it’s that sense of community, like being able to run into a professor in the grocery store that kind of, that keeps you engaged, and you know, we always, we’re always saying how do we keep students engaged so they don’t drop out or they feel like they’re not alone, or if they do need help, and you know, if everyone’s out in their community in Lake Wales, I mean, I think that would just make them feel a lot more comfortable and so, I think that’s awesome.
AO I love it. You know, I can’t say it the most. You know, I love working at JDA. I love working with my team. You know, I don’t give my team enough credit. You know, a lot of people, you know assume that you know I’m the face of JDA. That’s not really me. My team does all the work. You know, when you have a team like I have, you know, right now, I’m here. They’re holding down the fort, you know.
MF Yeah, right.
AO They’re assisting the students, they’re advising students. I jump in when needed be, you know, but man, I believe I have the best team at Polk State College. I love them to death.
MF That’s awesome. And so I’m sure you hear from the students all the time that they want more classes, and they want more, more, more. So I mean, how do you respond to that? ‘Cause I know you know things could be limited, but you guys have to get creative, so what are some of those things that you guys are doing?
AO I think Madison you hit it right on the head. Students all the time ask me, can we have this, can we have that, why don’t you offer this, why don’t you offer that? And it’s tough. Back again, I only have five classrooms, and one classroom is a computer lab. So you already know, that’s landlocked.
LB Right, right.
AO You can’t do anything with that. So you say to yourself, how do you become creative? And it’s really from a schedule component. So in building the schedule, I look at offering higher ed courses. So I say to myself, if I want to maximize my size and look at offering different courses, so instead of offering that Monday and Wednesday course, which is two days a week, which is traditional in our mindset, we offer it one day a week now.
We offer it one day a week with a hybrid component where you can meet on Monday, do the rest online, so now, instead of having that class come back on Wednesday, I can offer another course on that Wednesday in that same space. So instead of having one class, two days, I have two classes in two days. And so looking at the schedule components and say okay, what is needed the most? But also too, it’s not really what I think the students need. It’s what the students say they want, but also to what our local constituents need. So I’ll work with Lake Wales high school, I’ll work with Frostproof High School to see, okay, is there gonna be a big push in dual enrollment this year? If so, what’s needed?
AO Right now, you know with literacy that’s come on board, P-O-S U.S. Government 2041 is a hot thing right now. So we are offering many sections right now, because last year, we noticed it filled up immediately.
AO And so when students need that part, is part of their component or needed in the high school, it’s worth dual enrollment, we’ll give it to them, so they can fill our requirements. So you say to yourself, what is the proper balance right?
What is the proper balance of math courses on this day and science courses on this day? Or night classes and evening courses. Where honestly you try. You try and see where you fail. I’ve failed many times. You know, failure happens, but you learn from your failures.
AO And so with that purpose right there, I noticed that our JDA components is really interesting for my student body. In the morning, it starts with our younger group of students, at 18 to 24 year olds. You with students, your students who just got out of high school, first time in college students, and maybe some transfers.
But if you watch the building throughout the day, it’s kind of interesting. You’ll notice that the parking lot differs, it changes, it gets full, it gets empty, but about 4:00, 5:00, your adult learners start showing up. At 5:00, you’re gonna see your individuals from Legoland, from Publix with their uniforms on, a mother who has things on, because she’s been watching the kids all day. A child will come into work with a parent, because they don’t have a daycare today, so how do you assist with that?
How do you take care of them? Our goal is to make sure we have that family unit, family environment, to make sure we push, to make sure our students are successful. That’s the key to JDA. We want our students to be successful period. So we’ll find any, any ways possible. My job as the Center Director is to eliminate excuses and find solutions.
MF And what does the JDA Center offer in addition to classes? Because you all have a TLCC in tutoring
MF and all that good stuff.
AO We offer, we have our TLCC, you know, our Testing Learning Center, which is full of math tutors, science, English tutors, writing tutors. We have our sign language, which is a hot, hot topic at JDA,
AO And especially,
AO our sign language course fills up immediately.
AO It’s really interesting right? Because I didn’t believe that a four hour class could fill up in sign language. But it has.
AO We changed it, because we had, we lost some actual professors, so it was two hours, we changed it to four hours to give it a try. We opened it, and two weeks later, the entire class was full.
AO So we have it now. And then we have sign language tutors downstairs, so it’s so interesting to go in our TLCC when I do my rounds and walk in, you see a table full of students signing, having dialogue, without the voices.
LB That’s fantastic.
AO You see the gestures going on, and see how they want to be able to assist with student with disabilities or students involved, all nationalities, diversity in our TLCC. In addition to, we have a strong SGA. I think the biggest misconception is that JDA doesn’t have an SGA or JDA doesn’t have many events. We have a solid SGA.
We have events such as we have Halloween Horror Nights, where we have a local charter bus pick up our students from JDA, take them to Halloween Horror Nights in Orlando or take them to Howl-O-Scream in Tampa. We have opportunities where we have our welcome back week, where we give out, of course, a free popcorn, different festivities, face painting, you know, we have local vendors come in. We have everything you’d think of. We partner as much as possible with our community. We try to offer students the best atmosphere possible. We have who will bring us some juices sometimes. So we have it all.
AO You know, I think we have the best advisor core. You know, I know Dean Sylvester and Dean Larry might be , but I love my advisors. We may be the best advising combination possible. We’re gonna assist you, serve you, and make sure you leave happy.
LB That’s awesome, yeah.
MF We were talking a little bit about student life. So can you share about the Start Right Campaign that you all have put on there?
AO Absolutely. So let’s talk about the history of Start Right.
AO Like how did it all become? So I have three children. I took my daughter to Pre-K. In fact, kindergarten, so it’s her first day of kindergarten. I walked in her class. I noticed that in her class, I dropped off, I saw a lot of students in her class that didn’t have a backpack or school supplies.
Then in that same school, my son was in fourth grade, so I walked into his fourth grade class, I’m on the first year’s class and notice that he had two colleagues and peers in his class that didn’t have any school supplies. So that’s where the idea of Start Right came.
Because I said to myself, students need to start right on the first day of class. But we don’t know the disadvantages that many families have. You know, there are some weaknesses in my family. They’ll be some weaknesses in your family. So I’m just blessed with an opportunity where I can go to the store and buy some pencils and markers, I can get crayons for my daughter, I can get some scissors and some glue. But every family doesn’t have that opportunity or is afforded that opportunity.
AO And so with that, I said to myself, what if, right, the big what if question, we decided to hold a campaign called Start Right where our goal at Polk State College and JDA Center was to take care of our local community? The students I saw that didn’t have the supplies to be successful on the first day of class, to take away the bullying aspect, right, ’cause we know
AO bullying’s a huge thing right now.
AO What about that student who’s in fifth grade or sixth grade who doesn’t have, their parents are struggling, or their single-parent household, a mom or dad’s incarcerated? And grandma’s raising them. And grandma can’t afford it. And so a student doesn’t have a backpack or school supplies, and so they go to school, and their colleagues are bullying them. I want to eliminate all those excuses, all those rationale to make sure students are successful.
So we put this drive together with my team. We decided to go door to door, try to raise some funds. The first person we had a conversation with fell in love with the idea and gave us a $1,000 check, which was Wells Fargo.
AO Blew us away. Couldn’t believe it.
AO So I said maybe we have something here. So our first year, we raised roughly $4,700. We bought the school supplies, went to Walmart. We said let’s just, we just took a random number, 500 backpacks, right? Reached out to a local agency, said, what if, right, we offered haircuts in this supply giveaway? We talked to a local barbershop, they agreed. So we said okay, we have some cylinders clicking.
AO What if we decide to give away food, have hot dogs and burgers? We talked to a person, they donated a grill. So we saw there’s a heart.
AO People had passion for this, people wanted the same thing that we wanted as educators. So we put together the first event at JDA roughly three years ago now. And then within, at 7:00, I remember like yesterday, I pull in the parking lot at 7:10. I walked in my office, and I saw a family sitting down on a local bench in front of JDA. But it didn’t hit me that that family was there since 6:30 in the morning, waiting for backpack supplies. I missed it.
LB Oh my god.
AO I just thought they were just there in the morning. So roughly, I was there at 7:10, 7:30, I see another five cars pull in the parking lot. 7:45, another 15 people show up. 8:30, we have 200 people standing outside. 9:00, now we have 300 outside.
The first time, we want to start at 10:00. At 9:40, you had, 9:45 roughly had 700 people in line. Blew me away. Amazed, didn’t know what to say. It met my expectations plus some, but then I said to myself, oh my gosh, how are we gonna work this thing out? So we gave out roughly 500 backpacks full of school supplies and 25 haircuts in 45 minutes.
AO Of course, haircuts lasted a little longer, but the backpacks were gone. In 45 minutes. So you say to yourself, so it answered a couple questions for me. It answered the question of, did we fulfill a need? Absolutely, right? But another question is, what happened to 501?
AO You remember, I said we gave away 500 backpacks. So what happened to 502? What about 510, because they couldn’t get up early in the morning when everyone else got up and wanted to come. So I said wow, we have this huge need in this community, which is bigger than I can ever dream of.
AO And so we said, okay, let’s do it again. Let’s make this an annual event. So we did it again last year. Last year was even quicker.
LB Oh my gosh.
AO We had stanchions out there, we had lines, we had community member show up, we had a rotary jumping on board. We had city officials showing up. We had city commissioners call me. We had Michael Rosen’s office donating school supplies. We had give us a phone call. Everybody you can think of wants to join in Start Right. They want to be a part of it. The Martin Luther King Committee in the city of Lakewood jumped on board. They sponsored to give a $1,000 check. Duke Energy, of course, a phenomenal sponsor. Also on board Faded Fresh, Urban Transit, local barbers. Last year, we had seven barbers.
MF That’s awesome.
AO Seven barbers to give out 50 haircuts. And again, it wasn’t enough.
AO You know, so I’m at a place now, and I’m saying to myself, you know, how big can we actually make it? We don’t want to make it too big, but we’re not meeting our specific cause in our city at the same time. We don’t want no child to be left behind.
AO We don’t want a child to miss an opportunity to have the right supplies, to not have the haircut. And we’re not just talking about boys and haircuts. I think that’s a misconception too. We were cutting everybody’s hairs. Females, young men, teenagers, you name it, everybody was getting their hair cut. But again, after 50 haircuts are gone, and there are no more haircut takers, what do you tell that parent who’s 51? They’re sad,
AO because they waited in line for an hour, to get a haircut,
AO but the haircut’s gone. You know, my wife helped out the first year. And this was the most touching story for me. My wife helped out the first year, and she didn’t want to give out the backpacks. She wanted to share the food, because she’s a server. She’s out there serving the food.
We’re giving out hot dogs and hamburgers, and everything is done. And all we have now is we went through so many hot dogs and hamburgers, the charcoal is pretty much in ashes now. You can’t even cook on it no more.
AO So there’s a family that comes, we’re wrapping up. Everything’s gone from the cotton candy, there’s a snow cone machine, everything’s gone. We’re folding tables. This family comes, she brings her three kids with her. She says are there any more backpacks left? My wife says no, there’s no more backpacks left.
She comes and gets me. I say no, we don’t have anything left. She says, well, do you have any more food? I said no ma’am, we don’t have any more food. Everything’s gone now. I said all we have is these frozen patties. She says I’ll take them, because my kids have nothing to eat.
LB Oh my god.
AO So those are memories that I have.
AO Right, those are the issues I face, and I believe the Start Right program is doing what it’s intended to do. I believe we’re serving our community and serving so much others. So man I just love it.
MF That’s awesome.
AO And so again, this year, we’re gonna be on fire. We’re making things happen. And as long as I’m there, we’re gonna have it every year.
LB That’s awesome.
MF And this year is how many years that you all have been doing this?
AO Third year.
MF Third year, awesome.
AO Third year. And we’re averaging over 1,500 people in attendance. It’s pretty exciting.
MF Crazy, yeah.
LB Now when you buy the backpacks, like are they all the same backpack, or you buy different ages or colors or?
AO Great question. All the same backpack. The colors are Polk-tastic of course, black and red, you know.
AO We usually keep it Polk-tastic, you know. Everybody know who we are and everything else there. So here’s my biggest concern with the backpacks. I didn’t really want to label the backpacks, because I didn’t want, back to the bullying aspect, I didn’t want anybody to be able to say that was a Start Right backpack.
LB Right, right, right.
MF That makes sense.
AO Right. That’s the backpack they got from Polk State College.
AO Your goal, the part of the program isn’t to know what you got for free.
AO The purpose of the program is know I’m doing the best I can to be successful. I want to pass the third grade. I want to have the right tools for my FSA. I want to be able to go. And it’s not just for K through 12. We have our own Polk State College students who come as well to get backpacks.
AO Through Melvin, who’s phenomenal, the best SGA director, person you can ever meet in the world. I had a conversation with him, I said Melvin, I said we have some Polk-age students who might need some stuff too.
And through SGA, they donated 25 backpacks. So if you’re a Polk State student, and you need something, or you’re able to show your I.D., and you’ll have a backpack waiting for you full of school supplies.
AO And so, you know, we get rid of everything. From crayons to scissors. We work with Walmart. Walmart has been super phenomenal to JDA and the Lake Wales community.
LB That’s awesome.
AO They actually go back there, they order supplies for us, they count everything personally. They call us, we pick it up. It’s just a smooth process.
AO From the fire department who shows up. They bring their firetrucks for the kids who can jump in there.
AO To the Chief of Police who donates his time with the police officers coming. You know, how often do you see it, you know, I hate to say it, we have a lot of minorities who aren’t accustomed to police sometimes.
MF Of course.
AO And now you bring in, the local police officers show we’re here for you.
AO It’s a phenomenal experience from top to bottom. We have a phenomenal experience, the community loves it, our local mayor, who’s supportive of it. We got a great president, Dr. Falconetti, who’s great, just all around phenomenal program.
MF I’ve been out there, and you guys shut down the whole street, and it’s just like crazy. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s great that it’s actually, you know, really helping people.
AO It’s the real deal. You know, they shut down the street, and this year, we have the farmer’s market attached to it as well.
AO SO it’s gonna be out of control, so you can get a backpack
LB Oh shoot.
AO and fresh fruit at the same time.
MF I love that.
LB That’s great.
MF Well, can you talk to us a little bit more about the other community partnerships that are going on and how that helps our students?
AO Great question. So let’s just talk about Main Street, right?
AO We’ll talk about Main Street. So Main Street is a group, an accommodation of local community members who decided to form a committee, an organization to take care of downtown Lake Wales. Part of that process right now is to figure out how do we revitalize the city? How do we bring more people to downtown Lake Wales?
How do we bring more restaurants, right? Because part of the conversation at JDA, right, is we have roughly 1,100 students we serve, but we have no cafeteria. So right now, what’s in walking distance for our students? Well we know McDonald’s is roughly down the street. But we’re living in a world where students want to be healthy, some want quick shakes, some want a nice salad.
And so part of this conversation is how do they infuse, how does Main Street infuse with Polk State College right? And but not just Polk State College but the local community. And so we’ve been having those ongoing conversations. Karen Thompson is a phenomenal individual, Main Street director. She’s awesome. They work with us continuously. We work with our city officials all the time. There’s never been an opportunity where our local mayor, Eugene Fultz, hasn’t been supportive of JDA.
At any point in time, we can call him. He’ll call us back if he missed our call. He’s always there to support us, be there in person. You know, always advocate on our behalf. We have local rotary programs. Rotaries, they’re everywhere. They supply trees to local parks. They come drop off school supplies for our Start Right campaign. And they ask us what can they do to assist us? We have a local chamber. Our chamber’s phenomenal.
You know, with our Chamber Director Kevin Keith. He does everything possible to support us. You know, JDA’s been in a situation for two out of three years with funding. When everybody in the city rallies, supports, writes letters, knocks on doors, to figure out how do we keep this gem, this icon in our city, to supply and to make sure we’re servicing the need for our city? Our chamber’s right there, our number one supporter.
Our local EDC, Economic Development Council. They’re phenomenal, right? They’re trying to see in what ways are these new business coming in. How can Lake Wales grow? What’s gonna be the highway pattern in the next five to seven years? What’s the traffic conditions? Is the streets gonna be busy? How many cars are going through Highway 60? These are conversations I’d never would have been able to have until I got to JDA.
AO And see how we infuse with community. And so with Lake Wales High School. The charter school component. Man, you know, we in Lake Wales have an interesting combination. We have public, but we have mostly charter.
We only have two public schools in our city but mainly charter. We have a phenomenal relationship with the superintendent, local principals of the charter school system. They come make supply. We just talked about dual enrollment roughly 15 to 20 minutes ago, where our dual enrollment students have the opportunity to come on campus, get the collegiate feel.
Again, we’re not big, but we offer a collegiate feel. We offer a feeling that when you come on campus, you can feel like you’re part of a college. You’re part of Polk State College. Big or small, you get every aspect of opportunity to be successful from the best professors, the best staff, the best community in my opinion.
MF I think that’s the biggest message here for our students is that when you go to JDA or any of our centers or campuses, it’s really a community. It’s a family feel. We hear that from our students all the time, and JDA’s just like the shining example of that, because you have this community right around you. You step out downtown, and you know, or you have this city hall. You have the city officials who are all there, and they really care about the students. It’s not just the people that work at Polk State, so I think that that’s really cool.
AO Yeah, and JDA wouldn’t be where it is without the leadership of Polk. You know, when you have a phenomenal president like Dr. Angela Falconetti, you have a provost in Steve Hull, you got a VP in Reggie Webb. You have all the aspects to be great. And you infuse a community. It’s the fabrics of our work. It’s awesome.
AO So I love it.
MF I love it.
LB I wish you had a little more passion for your job. Just a little bit more. A little bit more.
AO Just a little bit more.
AO I’m trying.
LB It seems like you don’t really enjoy it so much.
AO Nah, that’s right. That’s right.
LB No, that is great. That’s fantastic. I can just like feel your passion, your energy, and that is so important and wonderful, and I admire that very, very much.
AO I truly love what I do, you know. I want to come to work and make a difference. And I believe that all these opportunities, we’re talking Start Right to just students coming to class to students leaving feeling great, from our SGA to our TLCC, we have the right combination to be successful in every aspect. I want JDA to get to a place where they’re busting at the seams.
Students are falling out of the classrooms because we have so many students, right? But again, you know, our goal is to serve. You know, this is part of our mission at Polk State College. It’s part of our vision. You know, the leadership such as all the departments here, from all the DCs that help us, the Dean of Academics, the Dean of Students, who reach out and find a way to support. We love it, and we appreciate it so much.
MF Well thanks so much for joining us today to talk about the Polk State JD Alexander Center in Lake Wales, and if you want more information, just go to polk.edu or you know, stop by the Lake Wales Campus if you’re ever in Lake Wales.
LB You’re awesome Andy.
AO Thank you so much for having me today.