December 2, 2021

Women in leadership - Taking the reins

Profiles of nine women leaders who are taking leadership roles in their fields.

Amy Martinez | 10/27/2021

ANGELA GARCIA FALCONETTI
President Polk State College Winter Haven

Providing opportunities through education.

In 2017, Jacksonville native Angela Garcia Falconetti became president of Polk State College, replacing Eileen Holden, who retired after 11 years in the position.

Falconetti, who has her bachelor’s degree from New York University and a master’s and Ed.D. from the University of North Florida, came to Polk State from Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke, where she was vice president of institutional advancement and executive director of the school’s educational foundation.

She also serves as chair of the Florida College System Council of Presidents, a 28-member group that advocates on behalf of Florida’s public colleges. She spoke to Florida Trend about her early interest in becoming a college president and her priorities for the council over the next year.

Background: “My parents are Cuban exiles. They moved to the United States as children. My father left Cuba and was put on a plane by his father when he was 12 years old and was told, ‘We hope to see you again, but if we don’t, we love you.’ My mother came in through Spain to New York, the Bronx. They both ended up in Jacksonville. They went on to pursue higher education degrees and became accountants. I clearly felt and saw how an education can change the livelihood of a family.”

Expectations: “I was told by my grandmother, ‘Prepare yourself for life. You have opportunities here we didn’t have in Cuba. That’s why we moved here, so that you can have a better life.’ I always felt that if the doors opened for me to serve as president of a state or community college, then my personal mission of advancing the lives of those who might not have had an opportunity otherwise aligned beautifully.”

Diversity: “There’s a growing Hispanic population in the area, and I really wanted to see the Hispanic student population at Polk State grow. When I was named president, the Hispanic population was at 19%, and now we’re at 26%. That’ll continue to increase. We mirror the same demographic projections as those of Polk County.”

Workforce Development: “We believe that a strategic, increased investment in the Florida College System’s program fund will make it possible for every college to implement House Bill 1507, which was passed during the last legislative session and is primarily focused on workforce education. The goal is to expand nursing and additional health care programs — there’s a growing demand for quality employees in high-need medical support occupations — and to supply job-ready employees in growing areas like cyber-security, drug manufacturing and advanced technologies. Other areas are logistics, law enforcement and first responder programs.”

Upgrades: “We’ll continue to advocate for our aging buildings in the form of public education capital outlay. Our facilities are part of an 88-year-old Florida college system; they need renovations and new classroom space.”

Retraining: “We have a grant with Metallica — the band — in partnership with the American Association of Community Colleges. Because of it, there are many students who’ve learned machining skills and have secured certifications in a compressed time frame. I attended a small completion ceremony that we hosted a couple of months ago. One young lady stood up and said, ‘I was laid off from Disney. I didn’t think I could be a machinist, but now I’m going to be able to make a really good wage.’ ”

Pandemic: “The main thing we can do as higher educators at this juncture is instill hope in our students and our employees. We’ll get through this. I know firsthand, going to back to my childhood, that opportunity changes lives, and the opportunity to turn one’s life around is what we offer through our state colleges.”

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