Jazmin Caton

Jazmin Caton, an SFSC alumna and the first person in her family to graduate with an advanced degree, will be awarded her doctorate in Higher Education Administration and Policy from the University of Florida (UF) when she walks across the stage in Gainesville on Friday, Aug. 10. It’s been a long road to a doctorate but each step was made with intention. 

Caton’s inspiration to attend college came from her family. “Education was always a priority in terms of expectations that my parents and family set for me and I adopted that for myself,” Caton said. “Going to college was always the goal from early on.” 

In a fourth grade class for gifted students at Sun ‘n Lake Elementary School, Caton’s teacher challenged the students with a project on genealogy. For the project, Caton was required to interview family members and then write a reflective piece on her personal life goals. “I said that when I grew up, I was going to have a doctorate in education and open a school,” she said. “I’ve accomplished one of those two goals.”  

For Caton, the decision to attend SFSC was easy, and her father’s influence was apparent. “I remember walking the College’s Highlands Campus on Take Your Daughters to Work Day with my dad, Eddie Cuencas, a program specialist with SFSC’s Panther Youth Partners. Just like other people whose parents work at or attend a particular college or university, SFSC was like that for me. SFSC was never a Plan B or second option. It was my first choice for college.”  

In fact, while still a student at Sebring High School, she began participating in the College’s dual enrollment program that allowed her to take classes that apply toward high school and college graduation requirements. 

But Caton’s early studies didn’t focus on a degree in higher education. Rather, she set her sights on public relations and strategic communications, a decision she made while in high school. “For this decision, I credit Jeff Cantwell, a Sebring High School journalism teacher and yearbook adviser,” she said. “I was yearbook editor-in-chief at Sebring High School. Mr. Cantwell helped me identify the skills I had in building relationships quickly and taught me the value of effective communications. As a yearbook staff member, at that time, we were doing some cutting edge things, like completely creating our own design for the yearbook pages. So I felt empowered with what I was already doing and for what I had a natural affinity for.” 

After receiving her Associate in Arts degree from SFSC, she earned a Bachelor of Science in Public Relations from the University of Florida in 2009. Her decision to immediately enter a graduate program came from her active involvement in the student community at UF. 

As an undergraduate, Caton served as an orientation leader at UF as well as a peer mentor and student leader for the program that offered her a housing scholarship—the Southern Scholarship Foundation. “The Foundation operates 27 houses throughout Florida, and I lived in one of their houses on the UF campus,” she said. “Students are charged with managing the houses they’re living in. They do the finances and take care of everyday living needs of a home, such as cleaning and maintenance. I served as house manager, and now sit on the board of directors for the Foundation.” 

While Caton was an undergraduate, she decided to make the leap from public relations to working toward a Master of Science in Family and Child Sciences from Florida State University (FSU).

“I was involved in student orientation activities at UF and working 20 hours a week in a communications job,” she said. “I took an internship for the UF Alumni Association and an internship with the development director at the Southern Scholarship Foundation. So, while I was working on my bachelor’s degree, I was getting real world experience.”  

“Through that process, I learned that I have a natural affinity for the work of public relations specialists—seeking out and cultivating relationships to disseminate information about organizations,” she said. “But I wanted to gain more expertise in a discipline. I was drawn to non-profit organizations and programs that help people. I wanted to be able to become an expert in human development.” 

She then entered graduate school at Florida State University (FSU). At FSU, a faculty member approached Caton with an opportunity to work for the FSU Autism Institute on a research project. After six months on the project, Caton was offered a job as a full-time employee. “It was a grassroots program and hadn’t been operating long. We made major gains in research funding and communication awareness to identify key messages. The State of Florida started paying more attention to us. My experience there helped me understand unique aspects of human development—why people are who they are and why they become who they become. And I was able to use my skill set in strategic communications—taking messages from our research and communicating them to the appropriate audiences.”  

“When working from research, one of the greatest challenges is providing the results of that research to the people who need it most,” Caton said. “That’s universal to almost any discipline. That was most challenging. Facing that challenge influenced me to want to be a leader in the administration of programs and projects that have critical information and services to offer people who need them most.”  

Caton sees the doctorate as a convergence of her knowledge base in human development and her skill set in strategic communications. “I was chasing opportunities to lead others and provide management and coaching. Receiving a doctorate in higher education administration was what felt like the landing place for those goals I was trying to reach. I felt that being in an institution of higher education or a support program of higher education was how to get to the goal of helping people in the way that has great return for them and the community.” 

Caton has taken her passion for human development and communications beyond the academic world. She plans to rewrite her doctoral dissertation for a new audience. It’s titled, “They Already Have So Many Labels: Defining Homelessness in the Context of Higher Education” and it focuses on homelessness among college students. “A recent study showed that 14 percent of community college students and 9 percent of university student are homeless,” Caton said. “My purpose was to explore the issue more specific to higher education—taking a closer look at how students and institutions understand, define, and support this issue of homelessness within this context.”  

Further, she and a colleague are working on a research project that explores childcare access within the community college system and the U.S. Department of Labor’s initiatives to increase access for students who are responsible for children. “Our case study will explore the implementation of this initiative and what these programs look like two years after receiving funding. We’re looking at practices at institutions that are promising for students who need access to child care. Lack of adequate child care can be a barrier to the completion of a parent’s education and a hindrance to their children’s future education as well.” 

As a means of giving back to the Highlands County community and the high school they graduated from, Caton and her husband, Tyler, created a $500 annual scholarship that is awarded to two Sebring High School swim team seniors. The Catons attribute their success to their involvement with the swim team and the leadership of Tyler’s mother, Patricia J. Caton, who they honor for her work as a teacher, coach, and mother. Caton said, “This is one of the many ways we are building a legacy of giving.” 

Caton offers prospective college students this advice: “Life doesn’t stop when you register for classes. You have to face the hard things outside of the classroom. Give yourself some grace and embrace the reality of life inside and outside the classroom. Leverage that to push yourself forward. Surround yourself with a community of people who don’t let you get away with negative self-talk, much like my husband has done for me. Surround yourself with family, friends, kids, and Jesus.”