I Define Success: Jennifer Defrees

Jennifer Defrees is no stranger to overcoming adversity. The Ivy Tech Community College Elkhart alumna and Distinguished Alumni Award recipient overcame many hardships before even beginning her journey in higher education. In her speech at the Ivy Impact Gala, she shared her Ivy Tech story.

Jennifer Defrees

“When I was 12 years old my father left me and my disabled mother,” she said. “By the age of 14, my mother and I were living in a homeless shelter in Goshen.”

After a few months in the shelter, she says they “bounced around from trailers and apartments for four years,” until Jennifer’s mother was placed in a nursing home. “After graduating [high school] in 2004, I enrolled at a local four-year college, but the need to simply survive became a top priority, so my dream of pursuing higher education was put on hold.”

Jennifer says those around her doubted that she would return to college, but deep down she knew they were wrong. After jumping from job to job, Jennifer found one she cared about at a nursing home. As she grew within the company, she felt it was time to go back to finally get the education she desired.

“In 2008, I enrolled at Ivy Tech in Elkhart County. It was a perfect fit for me as I needed to work full-time while taking evening classes toward my degree.”

By 2012 Jennifer completed her associate degree in accounting and four years later completed her bachelor’s degree at Indiana Tech. She currently works for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Elkhart County, the same place where she interned while studying at Ivy Tech.

“My teacher at Ivy Tech encouraged me to contact the Boys and Girls Clubs of Elkhart County. Fast forward six years later and I am STILL working at the Boys and Girls Club!”

Today, Jennifer remains connected to Ivy Tech through her membership in Circle of Ivy, the Ivy Tech Foundation’s women’s philanthropy circle that raises funds to support Ivy Tech students. Jennifer’s success story and her dedication to serving youth in her community have earned her recognition as an Ivy Tech Distinguished Alumna.

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Her advice for those considering enrolling at Ivy Tech is simple:

“Just do it. It’s a great way to get a career with an associate degree and then to go on to get your bachelor’s. You’re not going to be able to find anywhere as affordable and accommodating as Ivy Tech.”


Ivy Tech Community College is proud to celebrate Jennifer’s success and achievements with the Distinguished Alumni Award. This annual award honors alumni for their commitment to the College and to their communities. The awardees are leaders in their professions who make significant contributions benefiting their community, state, or college.

The alumni recognized with this award represent the very best of what an Ivy Tech education makes possible. Alumni, faculty, staff, and friends are all encouraged to submit nominations online.

I Define Success: Blake Hartman

Blake Hartman credits his career in welding to his experience at Ivy Tech Community College Terre Haute. The 1973 alumnus and co-owner/founder of Big Inch Fabricators and Construction, Blake was offered his first welding inspection job for a pipeline company before graduation. He worked at that job for 25 years, becoming the Manager of Construction over five states.

“Eventually I started a pipeline construction company, Big Inch Fabricators and Construction. I worked with my education from Ivy Tech every day for 45 Years, until I retired in March 2018.”

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Blake Hartman accepts Distinguished Alumni Award from Dr. Sue Ellspermann, Ivy Tech president, and John M. Murphy, Ivy Tech Foundation president at the Distinguished Alumni Awards Celebration in Indianapolis, December 2018.

His professional success, commitment to his community, and his dedication to Ivy Tech have earned him the Ivy Tech Distinguished Alumni Award, which he accepted in December 2018.

Blake remains involved with Ivy Tech through his endowment with the Parke County Community Foundation, which will fund three welding scholarships for Parke County graduates. He also supports and funds the Ivy Tech Rockville location through his board seat at the Rockville Parke County Learning Center. He believes that Ivy Tech provides students with a “top-quality education” and gives them the tools to pinpoint which direction they want to go with their careers.

“It’s a good place to go, work hard, and get good grades. That’s what helped me get the job in the field I was going to school for. Pick a profession that you want to go into and steadily go in that direction.”


Ivy Tech Community College is proud to celebrate Blake’s success and achievements with the Distinguished Alumni Award. This annual award honors alumni for their commitment to the College and to their communities. The awardees are leaders in their professions who make significant contributions benefiting their community, state, or college.

The alumni recognized with this award represent the very best of what an Ivy Tech education makes possible. Alumni, faculty, staff, and friends are all encouraged to submit nominations online.

I Define Success: Desiree Polk-Bland

Desiree Polk-Bland

Desiree Polk-Bland had already received a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees before earning her associate’s in general studies from Ivy Tech Community College Richmond while working there as a full-time employee.

“Ivy Tech is a place where you can create a supportive community to help you to achieve your goals. That was my experience,” she said. “I took classes to round myself out in areas that I did not have a background in, such as culinary arts, physics, and Spanish.”

Currently, the Executive Dean of Student Affairs at Columbus State Community College in Ohio, Desiree’s time at Ivy Tech gave her perspective on her career goals and enhanced her professional abilities in the field of higher education. Working on courses also gave her an opportunity to spend time with the students she was serving while working as a dedicated Ivy Tech employee. Desiree continues to support the College and its students through her recent endowment scholarship, the Polk-Bland Endowed Emergency Fund.

“It was important to me to give back to Ivy Tech for everything that they gave me. I want the scholarship to be there when people need it. I want it to be used to help others have access to education, overcome nonacademic barriers, such as food and housing insecurity, and to successfully achieve their educational goals.”

Desiree’s advice to those interested in enrolling at Ivy Tech is simple: “Just start and understand that assistance is available. As you have questions, get the assistance that you need. There is nothing holding you back from education, you just have to open the door and start.”


Ivy Tech Community College is proud to celebrate Desiree’s success and achievements with the Distinguished Alumni Award. This annual award honors alumni for their commitment to the College and to their communities. The awardees are leaders in their professions who make significant contributions benefiting their community, state, or college.

The alumni recognized with this award represent the very best of what an Ivy Tech education makes possible. Alumni, faculty, staff, and friends are all encouraged to submit nominations online.

I Define Success: Grace Gilbert

Student loan debt has become a nationwide epidemic, with graduates in the legal field being among those hardest hit. Many Ivy Tech students, however, are completing degrees without any debt—including December Paralegal Studies graduate Grace Gilbert.

Grace, who will earn an associate degree this month, worked hard to pay her tuition while still in college. However, she says Ivy Tech helped make it possible—and she encourages other prospective college students to make the same decision.

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I Define Success: Berdina Gamble

If you ever think it’s too late to pursue your dreams, or you ever feel like you can’t go on, Berdina Gamble’s story will likely change your mind.

When she first enrolled at Ivy Tech Community College, Berdina was a lot like many of her classmates. But Berdina had one advantage: she was fortunate to have enough free time to make college a priority. As a result, she excelled, earning induction into the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.

Soon, however, things changed dramatically. As Berdina says, “it came in like a flood.” Continue reading

I Define Success: Aaron Thomas

Robotics professionals are known for their technical knowledge, but every now and then, you’re reminded that they are also decidedly human.

Take Aaron Thomas, for example. The Ivy Tech Community College student has very practical reasons for entering his chosen field. He’s looking to move up in his career, and he sees a “vast need in Indiana for skilled workers.”

But when you ask him why he’s been successful in Ivy Tech’s Advanced Automation and Robotics Technology (AART) program, he credits something—or someone, more appropriately—closer to his heart. Continue reading

I Define Success: Laura Ernst-Davies

It’s often said that our biggest setbacks can lead to our greatest opportunities—if we work through them. That’s certainly been the case for Laura Ernst-Davies, who graduated this month with a Nursing degree from Ivy Tech Community College.

In 2014, Laura’s world was shaken by the death of her husband. A stay-at-home mom with five children, she knew her life would never be the same. And while she had previously earned a bachelor’s degree, she chose to pursue a career path that would provide for her family in the long run: nursing. Continue reading

I Define Success: Rebecca Winkle

If you ask Rebecca Winkle what it takes to succeed as a college student, she’ll tell you it’s simultaneously very simple and very challenging.

The simple part? “You get what you put in,” she says. In other words, you have a lot of control over your own destiny.

The challenging part? Well, consider this: Rebecca starts her day at 1 a.m. so she can complete some homework before heading to her full-time job.

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AT&T Aspire Grant Boosts Ivy Tech Programs

Thanks to $10,000 in funding from AT&T’s Aspire initiative, students enrolled in computing and informatics at Ivy Tech Community College’s Lake County campus now have access to more of the most updated equipment.

“AT&T is helping provide the much needed supplies to stay current in information technology,” Matt Cloud, chair of the School of Information Technology at the campus, said. “The purchase of routers and switches allows us to train students on the latest in not just basic networking, but also virtualization of networks, voice and video, while individual large-scale in-house wide area networks are built by 20 students at a time.

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I Define Success: Michael Flores Rodriguez

As he entered his freshman year in high school, Michael Flores Rodriguez was unsure of what to study in college. He had recently moved to Fishers, Indiana from Puerto Rico, which also presented the challenge of learning a new language, a challenge he was eager to accept. By the end of his senior year, not only did he have an English vocabulary, but a college program chosen and 13 college credits under his belt.

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