By Linda Shieves

Mihaka Saintelus had her sights set on college early in her high school career.

Her top three picks offered different experiences: Babson College in Massachusetts, which is one of the best undergraduate business schools in the country; Florida State University in Tallahassee, where she could experience the big state university experience; and New College of Florida, an honors college known for small classes and independent thinkers.

In high school – because of her good grades and test scores – Mihaka was already receiving advising and coaching from the Sunrise Scholars Foundation, an organization that provides free, comprehensive college counseling support to high-achieving underrepresented students in Florida.

But in the middle of her senior year, a family crisis shattered those plans. So Mihaka, with only months to go before graduation, was left wondering what to do.

“All year, I was all set to go. I got a full ride but I couldn’t go to those schools because of my family situation,” she recalls. “And I thought, ‘Now what am I going to do?’“

The answer came, surprisingly, in the Poinciana High School auditorium in March 2022, when Osceola County Commissioner Brandon Arrington announced to the assembled seniors that he had a big surprise for them: The county would guarantee them free tuition to Valencia College or Osceola Technical College.

“I said, ‘Wow, wow, wow!” remembers Mihaka.

That promise of free tuition – known as Osceola Prosper – allowed Mihaka to start her college career at Valencia College.  She now splits her time between the Osceola Campus and the college’s Poinciana Campus, which is about five minutes’ drive from her house.

Although all Valencia classes are small, Mihaka was excited to be accepted into Valencia’s Seneff Honors College, which offers students smaller classes, plus honors activities, both on campus and through Zoom, so students can meet peers from other campuses.

“Honestly, it’s been pretty great. I prefer small class sizes and, in the honors classes, you get more individualized attention and feedback,” says Mihaka. “That has helped tremendously.”

The classwork is a little different and tailored for honors students, pushing them to expand their boundaries. For instance, Mihaka says, “in my composition class, the regular final assignment would be a four-page essay, but for honors, the assignment is very different. It requires more critical thinking.”

Mihaka, who was a choral leader in high school and president of the school’s step team, wants to major in business administration. “Throughout school, whenever there was a project, I would want to take over or lead the project,” she says, laughing. “In high school, this tendency grew more. In clubs and organizations, teachers would see something in me and suggest I take a leadership position.”

The business world values that kind of leadership, she says, so she thinks majoring in business will be a natural fit for her.

And, while she was initially crestfallen that she couldn’t chase her dreams elsewhere, Mihaka is relishing her experience at Valencia. Because she doesn’t have to pay for classes, she works part-time in a retail store to pay for things she needs – and she volunteers at her high school, working with the chorus.

“Honestly,” she says, “it’s been a weight off my shoulders.”

By Linda Shrieves