Polk State Staff and Faculty Celebrate 30+ Years of Friendship


posted on by Polk Newsroom

For more than three decades, Shakia Young and Mary McElrath have been best friends.

Although they have been best friends for 32 years, they have only worked together for four months. McElrath started as a staff accountant at Polk State College in February. Young has worked at Polk State since 2012 and is currently a professor of computer science. They are also both former students of the College.

“All these years, we never lost touch,” McElrath said. “As a child, I was with his family a lot. We all became a family. We have to watch each other grow.

Young said McElrath decided they would be friends from the first second they met.

Young moved from North Carolina to Polk County when she was in seventh grade after her mother died in 1990. When she first sat in a class at Kathleen Middle School, she was was immediately welcomed by McElrath.

“I just sat up when I looked at this girl in front of me,” Young recalled. “She asked me like 35 questions in 10 seconds and I didn’t know what to say. Coming from another state, I didn’t know what people were like here.

Opposites attract

Since their meeting in this college class, their friendship has never wavered. However, their differences are many. As the owner of two businesses, Young has an entrepreneurial spirit while McElrath is more community-minded and a member of several civic organizations. She serves with the Florida American Legion Auxiliary Department and serves as Chair of Education, Chair of the Freedom Fund Banquet for the Lakeland Chapter of the NAACP, and a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority and Treasurer of the Missionary Baptist Church of the New Jerusalem in Lakeland.

“Mary has been such a joy for me to have in my life,” Young said. “She’s the only friend I can count on to give me honest advice and not just tell me what I want to hear. I trust her so much.”

McElrath holds five college degrees – two associates, two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree – and is also a graduate of the police academy. A former correctional officer, law enforcement officer and teacher, McElrath has long been a role model and pillar of stability. Young found herself later in life, but it’s her life, McElrath said, which is more intriguing.

“She was in the navy; she traveled,” McElrath said. “I feel like I lived vicariously through her. I’m not as vocal or as go-getter in some areas, but I still love to hear her stories. She’s also a good cook.

McElrath was fresh out of high school when she passed Polk State College’s law enforcement academy and spent five years as a detention and patrol assistant before spending 14 years as a teacher. Initially, Young didn’t know which direction she wanted to go, so she asked her best friend for advice.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do after high school, so I asked her because she was so career-focused,” Young said. “She said to go to the army, but I didn’t want to go to the army. And that’s what I did and it’s the best choice I’ve ever made.

Young spent six years in the United States Navy from 1998 to 2004. During the first years out of the military, Young didn’t know what to do next. She held several jobs and had her two children, son Chance and daughter Eshae. In 2012, she was hired by Polk State College where she also enrolled as a student. The US Army paid for all tuition.

Inspire each other

“So many people took me under their wings and showed me so much love, because they wanted me to finish and they wanted me to succeed,” Young said. “It just shows you the kind of environment Polk State is. (Business Administration Program Director) Maria Lehoczky treated me like her own child.

Young earned her associate’s degree in 2014 from Polk State before earning her Bachelor of Applied Science in Supervision and Management with a concentration in Business Information Technology in 2016. She graduated summa cum laude when she earned both degrees. In 2018, Young earned his master’s degree in information technology from Nova Southeastern University — the same school where McElrath earned his master’s degree in educational program management and administration four years earlier in 2014.

As influential as McElrath was on Young, one of his career choices was guided by an unlikely source. Young was 35 when she found out that a longtime family friend, George Brown, was her biological father. Brown was an accomplished electrical engineer and inspired Young to take up the field of technology – in computer network engineering.

Young owns an information technology company, which is called Data BITS. The last part of the company name is an acronym for Business Information Technology Solutions. She is also the owner and publisher of “My HooD Magazine”, which spotlights independent hip hop artists in communities across the country.

“A lot of people in my community don’t know I’m a teacher,” Young said. “They think I’m in the music business.”

For McElrath, life offers new beginnings. In addition to a new accounting career at Polk State, his youngest child, Jeremiah Jackson, state wrestling champion at Kathleen High School, will soon be moving to Colorado Springs to attend and play football at the U.S. Air Force. Academy.

Here for students

“There are so many new things happening,” she said. ” I like what I do. I am very happy here. I don’t work directly with the students (at Polk State), but being able to help them has been rewarding.

Helping students has also been a priority for Young. Although college degrees are important, Young prioritized his students’ real-world experience. She has previously worked with companies like Florida’s Natural and Lakeland Electric to provide students with paid internships and employment opportunities while in school.

“Once you graduate, you’re still at the totem pole,” Young said. “It’s really important that our students leave with experience and not just a degree. It’s part of my mission here at Polk State.

Another common point between the two longtime friends is the hairstyle. Although they don’t have the same hairstyle, the two sport “Sisterlocks” – small, flexible, easy-to-style locks of hair. McElrath wears them as a statement.

“There has always been social pressure on black women, men and children not to wear their natural hair to work, school, etc.,” she said. “This is an effort to show solidarity and to encourage black women to say it’s okay to wear your natural hair.”

From career choices to parenthood to faith, McElrath has long been a source of advice and wisdom to her best friend. McElrath, however, considered following in Young’s footsteps in other areas. She thought about becoming a teacher one day and also trying her hand at entrepreneurship.

McElrath’s daughter, Miracle, owns a shop called “My Wet Dog” in South Carolina that specializes in organic pet shampoos and treats. Owner of a cat named Thomas Gray, McElrath thought of starting a cat cafe with treats for other cat owners.

“She’s a good career person, she’s a good person in the community, she’s a good mother,” Young said of her friend. “I don’t think there’s anything she can’t do.”

Although they have been close for more than three decades, it is rare for McElrath and Young to be part of the same organization. One of the rare instances was in high school when the two were members of Upward Bound, an organization that provides students with academic help, career mentoring, and the ability to visit college campuses. Upward Bound is funded by the US Department of Education and currently offered at Polk State. Due to an incident, however, McElrath was unable to continue with the program.

“She didn’t do anything wrong,” Young said. “That was one of the bad things because she put me on Upward Bound and she couldn’t complete the program with me.”

McElrath and Young are once again part of the same organization at Polk State College. Young works at the Lakeland campus while McElrath works at the Winter Haven campus. Still, Young said she was glad they were on the same team.

“When Polk State sees talent, they grab it,” she said. “You’re not always going to find a workplace that cares about its employees the way they do here.”

“It’s the camaraderie that keeps us together,” McElrath said.

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