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AVON PARK, Fla. – Nov. 4, 2020 – Eric Bautista was the first person in his family to graduate from college. Although an excellent student throughout high school and college, he understood, firsthand, the struggle that students sometimes face at home and financially. As an alumnus of South Florida State College (SFSC), he wants to change people’s lives and build leaders. Because of his passion for education and sense of community, Bautista has helped dual enrollment students in DeSoto County continue their education and intends to do much more in the future.
During summer 2020, 12 dual enrollment students from DeSoto High School wanted to continue their college courses at SFSC. SFSC’s dual enrollment program allows eligible students in grades 6 through 12 the ability to simultaneously earn high school and college credit toward a degree or certificate. The students receive free college tuition and free textbooks.
Asena Mott, director of the SFSC DeSoto Campus, said, “We have a conundrum regarding our high school seniors whenever they want to finish their education. All through their dual enrollment experience, their classes have been paid for — books, tuition, fees, everything. But they may need to take summer classes to finish up their degree, whether it’s vocational or credit classes.”
In 2020, the SFSC summer session began on May 4 and the dual enrollment students wouldn’t graduate from high school until May 26. Because their summer college classes continued beyond their high school graduation date, the students were classified as “traditional” students and were no longer eligible for monies available to dual enrollment students. Financial aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is only available to students who have earned a high school diploma.
So, Mott approached the DeSoto County Education Foundation (DCEF) to see if it could assist the 12 students in their efforts to obtain financial aid. Sarah Walker, DCEF director, sent out requests to donors for assistance, and the positive response was overwhelming. The money donated and disbursed to the students for summer classes totaled $6,281.52. Of that amount, approximately $3,500 came through a personal donation from SFSC alumnus Bautista.
“I was introduced to the dual enrollment program when I was in high school,” Bautista said. “So I know how beneficial it is for high school students.”
Bautista, born and raised in Arcadia, had been a dual enrollment student from DeSoto High School and graduated from SFSC with an Associate in Arts in 2012. He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in accounting with a minor in economics from the University of South Florida (USF) in December 2014. Currently, he is the vice chair of the SFSC Alumni Association.
Bautista originally wanted to study to become a lawyer, but changed course and turned to accounting and, eventually, wants to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). “Accounting is the language of business, so I felt that it was the best place for me to get my foot in the door,” he said. Upon graduation, he was offered a position with the international accounting firm, Ernst & Young, in its Tampa office. “I was at Ernst & Young for about four years working as a risk advisory consultant. Then, two years ago, I came back to Arcadia.”
Bautista is currently the vice president of a local roofing company. He said that he wants to do more for the community, such as provide more jobs. “Each job that’s provided is a local family that’s being taken care of,” he said. “And the money stays in the community.”
His concerns for the community extend to educating young people. “I know the benefits of an education and the job opportunities I got. I want to let them know that ‘you can get the degree, you can get a better job if you aspire to it and stay motivated. Let me encourage you, let me walk you through it. If you need someone to listen to, I’ll be that person. I’ll help bounce back ideas.’ I want to be a role model, if possible, and a friend to them. If they come to me with questions, I’m available and I can help them.”
A program that Bautista recently became involved with is Take Stock in Children, a statewide program that provides at-risk children with a mentor and a college scholarship. In return, Take Stock scholars sign contracts in which they promise to remain drug-free, to avoid behavior that would get them into trouble with law enforcement, to attend school regularly, and to earn satisfactory grades. The SFSC Foundation serves as the lead agency for Take Stock in DeSoto, Hardee, and Highlands counties.
Besides the donation for the 12 dual enrollment students, Bautista has personally provided four scholarships of $500 each to students in the last two years. His passion for education is so deep that he convinced the company he works for to partner with the DCEF in providing young people with educational scholarships. “Between myself and my employer, we’ve sponsored 19 kids,” he said. “So, that’s about $10,000 in scholarships in the last two years.”
“We have to make a better environment for all of our kids,” Bautista said. “I have a son and I believe that education is important. I believe it gives you the opportunity to exchange ideas, learn, and grow. I’m a first generation college graduate and my education has helped my family tremendously.”