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Making a Difference Mondays, February 23

Monday, February 23, 2015

Donor Spotlight: Sharyn Gaston
Student Services Specialist


Working in higher education for the past seventeen years, I have seen thousands of students come into the Student Services Office, seeking the promise of a college education. Many times, the fear of how to pay for classes was a daunting barrier to enrollment.

When I entered college, my family did not qualify for financial aid, so I had to fund my degree on my own. Many years later as a single mom, I felt relieved when my own two children were able to qualify for scholarships to help ease the financial burden. I am proud that both of my children obtained their degrees, and my daughter is currently working on her master’s.

I feel it is important to give back to an organization that was created to support the needs of students. That little bit of help is a motivator to keep them going instead of giving up on their dreams.

To me, giving to the Polk State College Foundation is a fun way to give back to someone that I don’t know and may never meet, in support of higher learning.

Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Kristen Porter-Utley
A Passion for Passionflowers

Kristen-Porter-UtleyDr. Kristen Porter-Utley got her start at Polk State College through the Early Admissions Program, spending her entire senior year taking college-level classes before graduating from Lake Wales High School in 1988. “My parents were uncomfortable sending me away to school because I was so young. The compromise was that I could go to the University of Florida, but I had to go to Polk State first,” remembers Porter-Utley.

That decision would be one that shaped her future as a student, and that now shapes the futures of her students at Keene State College in New Hampshire where she currently serves as a Professor of Biology.

Originally, Porter-Utley did not have a set career path. She thought that she might follow her parents into the business world, pairing it with her interest in plants and opening a nursery. Her first classes at Polk started her in the direction of the sciences, but she struggled. Two professors, Dr. Barry Tosh and Professor Paul White, mentored her to get her on track. Porter-Utley recalls going to see Tosh after not doing well on her first calculus test. “He gave me problems from three other textbooks so that I could work through them and better learn the material. Dr. Tosh taught me how to succeed in a tough course.”

Professor White taught Botany classes at Polk and helped Porter-Utley find her passion in this field. She received her Bachelor of Science in Environmental Horticulture, her Master of Science in Botany, and her Ph.D. in Botany, all from the University of Florida.

Today, she serves as both a Professor of Biology and the Assistant Dean of Sciences at Keene State College. For the past fifteen years, she has been focused on the study of plant evolution. She received the 2013 Scholar of the Year Award from Keene in recognition of her research, discovery, and documentation of the passionflower.

Porter-Utley is part of a team of researchers that received a National Science Foundation grant to study passionflowers in Mexico, and Central and South America. She has had the opportunity to travel to remote locations in these countries and collect samples of rare passionflowers. Some have never even been photographed. Through her research with the team, she was able to determine that a passionflower she discovered in Southern Mexico was a new species. While the plant appears similar to those already documented, a DNA sequencing comparison later proved that it was clearly different. That species now bears the name Passiflora tacanensis Porter-Utley.

Whether in the research lab in New Hampshire, or in the tropical forests of Central America, Dr. Porter-Utley credits her start at Polk State as the catalyst for her academic success. “At Polk State, the classes were challenging, and the faculty were incredibly supportive. I learned the fundamental skills to succeed in college, including how to study effectively. I also learned how to work hard, not to be intimidated, and to ask for help when it is needed.”

In her capacity as Assistant Dean at Keene State, Porter-Utley draws on her belief in two-year colleges (such as Polk State) to drive her work in making sure the articulation agreements with New Hampshire community colleges are as smooth and efficient as possible. These agreements ensure that a student with a two-year degree can continue his or her educational journey as she once did. Today, Porter-Utley shares stories of her time at Polk to inspire and encourage her own students.

Student Spotlight: Marisol Santander
A Love of Music Sets the Tone for Future Career Plans


At an early age, Marisol Santander discovered a love of music and performance. Now, in her second semester at Polk State, this Music major is focused on a career on the stage.

A 2014 graduate of Haines City High School, Marisol is the first in her family to graduate from high school. She credits two of her teachers with helping her to make the decision to come to Polk State. “My high school music teacher told me about Polk State’s Music Program, and through dual enrollment, I was able to take some classes with Professor Anderson and Professor Manzi. Polk’s Music Program is known to be a great stepping stone to strong music departments at state universities.”

Her high school math teacher took time during class to talk to students about going to college, and also helped them to complete the FAFSA (financial aid application) in order to help make those dreams a reality. Marisol’s math teacher even explained the purpose of the Polk State College Foundation, and Marisol was able to apply and subsequently receive a scholarship.

According to Marisol, “I knew that in order to pursue my dreams of performing, I needed to go to college. However, as the first in my family to attend, I had no plan on how to pay for classes. The scholarship I received from the Polk State College Foundation has allowed me to work on my degree without taking out loans.”

As a member of the Polk State Women’s Choir, Marisol has a busy schedule that includes performing at school and at special events. These performances and her other coursework make it difficult to have an additional work schedule, so knowing that her classes are paid for makes her feel more secure.

Marisol plans to stay at Polk State to complete her Associate in Arts degree. She then plans to transfer to a state university in Florida that offers Classical Music as a major. Her dream job would be to work for Disney as a member of the Voices of Liberty, a long-standing group of a cappella performance and recording artists, who entertain thousands of guests each day at Epcot’s American Adventure Pavilion.

Executive Director’s Greetings

Colleagues – You are truly amazing!

When we set the $50,000 Employee Giving fundraising goal last year in honor of the College’s 50th Anniversary, we knew it was a lofty one. But, many of you met the challenge and donated more than you have in years past, added a little extra as a lump sum, and several of you even jumped in and gave for the first time! Collectively, all of your generosity has made it so that we proudly surpassed our goal. The majority of the donations from this worthy cause will be applied to emergency scholarships, which give students the hand-up they need through challenging times so they can stay enrolled and on the pathway to graduation at Polk State. Several of you have particular passions at the College and have directed funds to personalize your donation.

The Foundation Board and Team, and the students who benefit from your generosity, are extremely grateful for every dollar donated for every purpose. Your contributions are a testament to the awesome College community we have created and the transformational difference we make for our students. I could never begin to thank you enough.

All the very best,

Tracy M. Porter
Executive Director