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Making a Difference Mondays, December 7

Monday, December 7, 2015

Donor Spotlight: Rebecka Sare
Professor of English


She was a quiet presence, a student who could easily have gone unnoticed in a larger class. She turned in her work dutifully, was on time every day, and participated in discussions. No red flags—nothing to make me concerned.

Students were writing their first essays of the semester, and, with a small group of ten students, I was able to spend time with each one as he or she worked through the writing process. The writing prompt was to tell a story of an obstacle that the student had to overcome. It was towards the end of the class that she came to me with her draft, asking politely if I would look at it with her. In this short, five-paragraph essay, she told me her story: a mom with three kids, a husband who had committed suicide a year ago, a part-time job at a daycare center, a dream of having her degree in Early Childhood Education, and the fear that she would not be able to scrape together enough for next semester’s bill.  That was four years ago. I was privileged enough to watch her walk across the stage last spring. As Dr. Holden shook her hand, and her children cheered for their mommy, I felt pride in what we do at Polk State, and in what the Foundation does. We walk with people as they journey towards their degrees. We support students and cheer them on as they struggle through course work, and we pick them up if they fall.

When I initially signed my payroll deduction form to give to the Foundation, it was because of my family’s belief that if you can give, you do. After meeting this student, my reasons for giving changed. Now, I give for her. I give for the student who is the first-generation-in-college in the family, and for whom there is nothing extra to help cover expenses. I give for the man who was just released from prison and is trying to get a degree so he can start afresh and find employment. I give for the family who has to choose between buying a textbook and paying an electric bill. I give for all of the countless stories that have been shared with us by our students. I give because they, too, are Polk.

Alumni Spotlight: Chris Nelson
December 2015 Distinguished Alumnus Award Recipient


Chris Nelson currently serves as the Chief of Police for the City of Auburndale, a position he has held since 2012. After attending Bartow High School, he started work for the Polk County School Board in the vocational department immediately following graduation. He later took a position as a police officer with the Bartow Police Department after attending the Police Academy at Polk State College. Nelson had always wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement, and it was during this time that a mentor encouraged him to go back to school to get his degree.

Nelson was able to work full time while attending Polk State on a part-time basis. He worked as a patrolman and traffic homicide investigator with the Bartow Police Department before he moved to Live Oak, Florida, where he eventually became Assistant Chief. Nelson received his Associate in Arts degree from Polk State in 1998, his Bachelor of Arts in Criminology from St. Leo University in 2001, and a Master of Science in Criminology from Florida State University in 2010.

In addition to working for the Live Oak Police Department, Nelson also worked as an investigator at the State Attorney’s Office in the Third Judicial Circuit. The Chief of Police in Live Oak, Nolan McLeod, had been a mentor and colleague to Nelson. When McLeod was appointed Chief of Police in Auburndale in 2007, he hired Nelson for the position of Deputy Chief. When McLeod passed away, Nelson was appointed the Chief of Police for the City of Auburndale in July 2012.

As a board member of both the Florida Police Chiefs Association and the Polk County Police Chiefs Association, and a member of the Polk State College Criminal Justice Advisory Committee, Chief Nelson’s leadership and experience have helped to advance the profession. He has been a strong advocate for the Polk State Center for Public Safety that is set to open in January 2016.

Chief Nelson remains highly involved in the community though his membership in the Auburndale Rotary Club and his participation as a board member for the Polk County Youth Fair. He participated in the Youth Fair in high school, and credits this activity for teaching him about being responsible for others and the importance of fiscal accountability — skills he has used throughout his career. Nelson is also a graduate of the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Academy Class 209 and Leadership Polk Class VIII.

Student Spotlight: Eric Ardito
Student Leader Finds Career Path Through Volunteering


Originally from New York, Eric Ardito and his family lived in multiple states across the U.S. before settling in Polk County five years ago. As a home-schooled student, Eric sought out a welcoming, convenient place to continue his studies. After easily navigating the Polk State website for information, he made the decision to enroll.

Eric immediately found that he fit right in at Polk, and he got involved with extracurricular activities. “I had a friend who worked in the Student Activities and Leadership Office (SALO) who introduced me to Allison Walker, and she immediately made me feel welcome,” noted Eric.

After that meeting, Eric joined the Student Activities Board in Winter Haven. He currently serves as its President. He has also worked in the SALO offices, the Theatre Department (as a technical assistant), and is volunteering his time to mentor new students through the M&Ms – Mentors and Mentees Program.


Currently majoring in Public Relations, Eric dreams of working in student life, and perhaps of one day following in the footsteps of his role model, Melvin Thompson. Through the Student Activities Board, Eric has worked to organize several campus-wide events, and is responsible for booking entertainment for students on the Winter Haven Campus. He represented Polk State at the Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities (APCA), which allowed him to attend workshops on event planning and meet nationally recognized speakers.

Eric was the recipient of the inaugural ELITE Legacy Scholarship that was created through gifts to the Polk State College Foundation by employees who participated in the Exceptional Leaders with Innovative Talents & Excellence (ELITE) Program. As the first-ever recipient of this scholarship, Eric was both surprised and honored. “When I applied for this scholarship, I did not realize it was the first time that the group had ever given this award. Polk State is such a great place for me—being the first recipient is very special to me.”

Eric hopes to transfer to the University of South Florida after graduating from Polk. He plans to commute so that he can live at home and stay connected to his community. Notes Eric, “Polk State has been a great place for me both academically and socially. The memories I have made and the skills that I have developed here will be with me for a lifetime.”

Executive Director’s Greetings

Greetings Colleagues!

These past few weeks have been especially inspiring for me. A teammate shared a story about an elementary school scholarship recipient who worked hard to keep her grades up throughout middle and high school in anticipation of using her award to the fullest benefit. Then she found herself pregnant in high school, and she worried that this life event would alter her dreams for higher education. Thankfully, she persevered with her education and graduated on time. She became pregnant again and was extremely concerned she would lose her scholarship altogether because she was not able to start Polk in the fall, but we assured her that the award would ready for her when she returned in the spring.

That’s what I truly love about working for Polk State – we are here to serve such a diverse population of students with varied needs and backgrounds. Despite their differences, they all have one commonality—they want strive to make a better life for themselves and their families. For students who battle life issues, those who struggle academically, and those who sail through their courses to graduate with a 4.0, the Polk State family is here to serve and provide the foundation for a transformative change in their futures through educational attainment. It is incredibly rewarding to have programs and people who work tirelessly to help our students succeed wherever they might be in life’s journey.

Professor Rebecka Sare’s story this month of why she gives was so incredibly moving to me. I don’t have the honor of being directly on the “front lines” in the classroom to witness the positive impact that we make, but I do get the genuine pleasure of hearing these great stories, and am able to observe the joy of our students when they receive their life-changing financial help. These are among the moments that make me so proud to be a small part of this great institution.

Happy Graduation! Happy Holidays! And thank you so much for all you do to make such a difference in the lives of others!

All the very best,

Tracy M. Porter
Executive Director