Marquis McGary and Florentina Denis-McGary

This story is Part 2 of FCAN’s The Students Who Make Florida Talent Strong series, which highlights the different pathways available for Florida students to achieve education beyond high school. FCAN believes that in order to build a Talent Strong Florida with a strong, nimble economy, all Floridians need access to high-quality training and learning opportunities after high school and throughout their careers. Read Part 1 here.

There’s nothing wrong with having a little fun with schoolwork.

After Florentina Denis-McGary and her husband Marquis McGary, both 27, decided to enroll at Polk State College in 2017, the couple thought it might be a good idea to gamify the pursuit of their associate degrees.

“Almost all our classes were together, so we made it a competition to see who could come out with the better grades,” Florentina said. “It was close, but Marquis won.”

While Marquis may have edged Florentina out in terms of G.P.A., both spouses consider themselves huge winners after each earning associate degrees in health science from Polk State at the end of 2020.

“In high school, I noticed that a lot of people who had an education also had a certain level of influence,” Marquis said.  “I feel that having an education opens up a lot of different doors and lets you have different conversations.”

Going to college with a purpose

The couple has been together 9 years and met during their time together at Auburndale High School in Polk County. Marquis had initially tried a more traditional path to college.

About six months after graduating from Auburndale High, Marquis found himself at Polk State College’s admissions office, despite not having a clear college or career plan.

“I remember setting a major that I had no interest in or knew nothing about, and I was dependent on my parents on the time,” Marquis said. “I knew that if I’d gone (to college) that I wasn’t going to focus, and I wouldn’t get good grades. I didn’t want my parents spending their money and me not knowing what I wanted to do.”

Marquis said his dad, a retired veteran, pursued a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice when he was in his 40’s, which established an educational goal post in Marquis’s mind.

“I definitely felt like it was something I was expected to do, especially since my dad had done it later in life,” Marquis said. “I think I put a lot more pressure on myself to do it, even though I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

About five years after graduating from Auburndale High, Marquis and Florentina were both working as paraprofessionals — assisting teachers or other educators with delivering instructional services to students — for Polk County Schools when they realized they’d have to go back to college to accomplish their goals.

“I remember we were driving around one day, and I pointed to this really nice house and said, ‘We’re not going to be able to get a house like that with what we’re doing right now,’” Marquis said. “We were both going to have to go back to school.”

Although Marquis is still unsure about the exact career path he wants to follow, he believes that his associate degree in health science — along with the bachelor’s degrees he and Florentina plan to begin pursuing this upcoming spring — has put him in a much better position to accomplish his goals.

“I’m still figuring out I want to do, but I’m deciding between fields that are in-demand,” Marquis said. “I’m hoping for a career where you can make a good amount of money depending on how far you go.”

Personal experience inspires professional path

Florentina’s entry into health sciences, on the other hand, come from a more personal place.

A native of Port-au-Prince, Florentina said her mother had worked as a nurse in Haiti but her degree and credentials did not transfer when the family moved to the U.S. about 20 years ago. However, it was the sudden death of Florentina’s father while Florentina was in high school that inspired her current trajectory: to become a medical examiner.

“It all stems from when my dad passed, and we were unsure of what caused it,” Florentina said. “I want to be able to tell families whether it was organ failure or whatever the case was and give them closure.”

Florentina said her dad’s death had initially knocked her off her educational course.

“I really put my education on the backburner because of all the grieving I was going through,” Florentina said. “After high school, I tried a program to become a medical assistant, but it wasn’t for me.”

Florentina wants to become a physician’s assistant — a licensed health care provider who requires more training than the more administrative-focused medical assistant — before working her way up to a position as a medical examiner.

She’s also enjoying all the knowledge she has acquired along the way.

“You think you know things, but then you dive deeper into the body and the mind, and it’s like a whole new world,” Florentina said.

Enjoying their college experience together

The couple earned associate degrees from Polk State College in 2020. Photo courtesy of Florentina Denis-McGary.

Marquis says he is more receptive now to learning in a classroom environment than he was the first time around.

“I feel like you definitely take knowledge and the ability to learn for granted when you’re younger. A lot of people don’t get that opportunity,” Marquis said. “I actually do feel like I’m becoming smarter as I go through college.”

The road to their associate degrees wasn’t always smooth.

Florentina said she struggled with a class after becoming pregnant with the couple’s daughter Madeline about two years ago.

“It was a high-risk pregnancy, so I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks and missed more school than I expected,” Florentina said. “I was able to talk to my professor, who gave me time to catch up.”

Marquis said the birth of the couple’s daughter almost derailed his friendly competition with Florentina at Polk State.

“I got my first C the semester my daughter was born because I was getting no sleep,” Marquis said. “I was devastated.”

Both Florentina and Marquis plan to pursue health science bachelor’s degrees at the University of South Florida in behavioral and aging health. The couple initially enrolled at USF for the current fall semester but decided to wait until the spring and try to more closely align their course load.

Florentina recommends that any adult learner pondering returning to school take advantage of all the resources their postsecondary institution of choice has to offer.

“Polk State had a bunch of different ways for helping students,” Florentina said, citing the flexible schedule and the college’s Teaching Learning Computing Center. “It’s important you make sure that your school has a strong support system.”

Marquis believes the key is to care deeply about whatever you decide to study.

“Make sure you’re doing something you really want to do,” Marquis said. “Otherwise you’re not going to want to go those classes and you’re not going to want to do homework on the weekends, or when it’s late and you’re tired.”

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