Meet the Presidents

Dr. Angela Falconetti

President of Polk State College

Written By RJ Walters | Photography in Inklings Book Shoppe by Jordan Randall and Jon Sierra

Several years ago, Dr. Angela Falconetti was preparing for a short family trip to Disney World—a rare escape from her duties as President of Polk State College—when the phone rang. It was a lobbyist notifying her of an opportunity to testify to the Florida House at the State Capitol regarding a key funding opportunity for the school. The appointment would have to be early the next morning.

“So I got home that night, put the alarm on, packed, woke up at 3:30 in the morning, drove straight to Tallahassee, changed in a bathroom, did my hair, put makeup on and walked straight into the House building to testify, at like 9:30 in the morning,” she recounts.

The assertive 48-year old leader once listened to stories of how her grandparents fled Cuba and sacrificed so much so that future generations, like Angela’s, could have a “good life.” Today Falconetti is doing her part to make that same opportunity true for everyone in Polk County.

“We are Polk” is more than the school’s slogan, it is the school’s DNA. More than 70 percent of Polk State graduates stay in Polk County, and more than 90 percent of students are from the area.

The school is the largest higher education institute in Polk County, now serving more than 20,000 students annually through bachelor’s and associate degree programs, as well as a wide range of certificate and workforce training options at locations like Polk State Corporate College in Bartow.

Leadership is constantly sifting through national and regional data while working to align its educational options with local employer needs. That’s why they’ve stepped full-force into a lot of nationally recognized certification and licensure programs—such as advanced manufacturing, IT, child care and more. The school is also keenly focused on programs like hospitality, law enforcement training and elementary education. It’s the reason that Falconetti has her “Eagle eye” laser focused on building the Polk State Haines City campus, which is envisioned as a new technology-powered, engaged learning environment that takes the college’s nursing and health science programs to new heights.

Polk State received $13.8 million for the project from the Florida Legislature in 2022, and a $1.7 million donation from AdventHealth provided an endowment to fund the Dean of Nursing position. Unfortunately for Falconetti and her team, the legislature vetoed their request during this year’s legislative session for $16.2 million to complete Phase I of the Haines City campus.

“Oftentimes I’ll wake up at night strategizing, my mind goes ’round and ’round thinking about…what do I need to do in Tallahassee? Who do I need to meet with?” Falconetti said. “It’s a passion of mine, it’s a dream. It’s not just because we need a building. It’s because of what’s gonna be in that building. It’s going to be transformational for sure for that community.”

Within a 10-mile radius of the Haines City Campus site, there are more than 80,000 residents whose highest educational attainment is a high school diploma or some college but no degree. 

Falconetti readily admits the role she stepped into six years ago is deeply political, in part because about half of the college’s funding comes directly from the state. One of the reasons she said ‘Yes’ to becoming the face of Polk State is one of the primary reasons she strongly believes its best days are still ahead—an extremely committed and skilled board of trustees who utilize their connections, influence and experience to bolster the college’s position.

The board consists of Citizens Bank and Trust President/CEO Greg Littleton, Teresa V. Martinez—President and Founder of the Institute of Spanish Communication, Inc., community advocate and nonprofit leader Ashley Bell Barnett and Cindy Hartley Ross, the owner of Social Graces.

“They go to Tallahassee, they go to Washington DC and they talk to the members of Congress, and they carry a level of connection in this county that is extremely beneficial for our institution,” Falconetti said.

The Polk State College president has truly been preparing for this role her entire career too. Her educational achievements and professional accolades are enough to fill up several LinkedIn profiles, but some of the highlights include: a postdoctoral fellowship in Community College Leadership with The University of Texas at Austin while working as a research associate for the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, serving as Special Assistant to the first Deputy Assistant Secretary for Community Colleges in Washington, D.C. , serving as Vice President of Institutional Advancement at Virginia Western Community College, and most recently, serving as Chair of the Florida College System Council of Presidents.

She continues to leverage those experiences and connections to create new opportunities at a school where a student’s average age is 25-26 years old. She has seen an increased need to provide more social and psychological support to a population that is still recovering from some of the impact of the pandemic. It’s all with the future in mind.

“I feel if we open the doors for individuals to pursue a higher level of education ….[it] can take somebody from poverty to prosperity or from prosperity to be even more prosperous in their lives,” she said.

She said her advice to her 12-year-old daughter Sophia about pursuing continuing education includes finding something she is passionate about and going after it, while also being realistic about what kind of long-term lifestyle that can afford her.

“Pursue a college education because no one can take that away from you, and you have something to build on.”

Falconetti admits the work is ongoing to raise the school’s profile and help locals understand that what was founded as Polk Junior College and eventually became Polk Community College until 2009 is in a new era of opportunity and anxious to prove its prowess. 

But the proof of progress is all around her. At a recent Polk State College graduation, a Spanish-speaking woman pulled the President aside. Her son had just graduated with two degrees and was enlisted in the military. She asked Falconetti, “Are you the lady who helped my son?” Falconetti said that there are a lot of people who helped her son succeed, and she was one of them.

“She just started crying in my arms. She cleans homes for a living so they didn’t have a lot of means to put him through,” she said. “He received employment at the college and benefited from some scholarships. That’s the type of lives that we’re changing.”

“Pursue a college education because no one can take that away from you, and you have something to build on.”