Laura P. Tomko: Three-Time First-Generation Florida Southern College Graduate

Dec 21, 2022

by FSC Staff

With a Feb. 1, 2023, defense date, Laura P. Tomko ’02, M.Ed. ’15 plans to graduate with her Ed.D., earning her third Florida Southern College degree.

At Home in Lakeland

Originally from Chicago, her family moved to Lakeland when she was eight years old, so she considers Swan City to be her home. Tomko attended elementary through high school in Lakeland and was a first-generation college student when she enrolled at FSC.

“I grew up walking Lake Hollingsworth and the College was always a big part of the Lakeland community,” Tomko said. “I always imagined the students at FSC being so different from me. Going to Florida Southern seemed like an unattainable goal, only meant for a select few.”

Tomko would eventually learn that Florida Southern was not only a welcoming institution, but it is also comprised of people who want to help students from all walks of life achieve their educational, professional, and personal goals. 

“I credit FSC with completely changing the trajectory of my life as a young person, and there were many people along the way who facilitated opportunities for me to make that possible,” Tomko said.

Receiving Help Along the Way

She is grateful for several FSC professors and staff members who helped her navigate college as a first-gen student.

“Sherrie Nosal worked in the financial aid department at FSC," Tomko said, “and was instrumental in encouraging me to apply for admission to Florida Southern. She also ensured I had every opportunity possible to help make my college experience affordable.”

Dr. Peter Schreffler, Associate Professor of English and department chair, was one of many who made the college experience much easier for Tomko.

Dr. Schreffler was my advisor as an undergrad and he was immensely helpful in filling my learning gaps and making sure I stayed on track to graduate,” Tomko said. “We also worked on my writing a great deal. He was hard on me, and it made me a much better writer, which has helped me greatly, especially in writing my dissertation.”

Tomko felt privileged to study under Associate Professor of Mathematics and Department Chair, Dr. Susan Serrano, Ph.D., as an undergraduate student and as a doctoral student. She was also assisted by Brooke Veal, current Director of Field Studies and FSC Evening Education Programs. Veal helped Tomko with her graduate studies.

The First-Gen Experience

“I am passionate about education today because of my experiences as a first-generation college student,” Tomko said.

The mother of four currently lives in Orlando and works for the Diocese of Orlando as an Advanced Placement Literature and Composition teacher at Bishop Moore Catholic High School.

Florida Southern’s reputation for excellence, especially in its education department, made the College an obvious choice for Tomko. The guidance she received as a first-gen student at FSC influenced her decision to focus her doctoral dissertation on marginalized students, which can include any student who may not appear to be the type of individual who would normally attend a particular institution.

“I had to work very hard to fit in and understand the culture of higher education,” Tomko said in reference to being a first-generation student. “I know my parents are super proud of me for accomplishing my educational goals.”

Tomko says persistence and perseverance are key. She would advise first-gen students to know when to work through something themselves, but always know who to contact if they need help.

“FSC professors truly want their students to succeed and will provide the support that students need to be successful,” Tomko said. “Get involved on campus and link up with students who can help you navigate college life. This is especially important if you're lacking study skills or time management skills like I was. Get plugged in!”

Aerial view of Berlin

It Takes a Village

The career educator feels family, work, and day-to-day life can get in the way of scholarly pursuits and the process can be very isolating. Her main advice for graduate students is it is important to have someone in the program to collaborate with.

“Creating a strong relationship with someone else who will hold you accountable and offer encouragement when things get tough is key to sticking with graduate studies,” Tomko said.

She feels fortunate to be able to pay the support she received at FSC forward. She chose education because it is one of the few fields where she can have a positive impact on the lives of others.

“There were so many people through the years, especially at Florida Southern College, that supported me and encouraged me to better myself through education,” Tomko said.

Returning to FSC to earn her masters and doctorate degrees speaks volumes about her respect for the College.

“Going to Florida Southern for a third time has been such an honor,” said Tomko. “I am always proud to have Florida Southern College included on my resume. Through my years as a classroom instructor of seniors, I have had many of my students choose FSC for their undergraduate degree, which is always exciting.”