tampabay.com

After struggles and study, sheepskin

St. Petersburg College honors graduates at its 100th commencement ceremony Saturday.

By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN
Published May 6, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - Before the ceremony began, hundreds of parents and students made their way into Tropicana Field on Saturday morning clutching cameras and ceremonial gowns.

They'd already seen the banners and heard the news about how special this day was to St. Petersburg College:

It was the 100th time the college was holding ceremonial exercises.

Gov. Jeb Bush was the commencement speaker.

And for 40 graduates of St. Petersburg Collegiate High School, a charter school, it was a chance to get an associate degree just a few days after picking up their high school diplomas.

But for many graduates, all the pomp and circumstance was an aside compared to the rewards that came with getting a college degree, often after years of work and struggle.

It took Bernice Igbinosun, 49, five years to collect her associate degree in substance abuse. She commuted every day from her home in Tampa, worked long hours, studied whenever she could.

"I did what I had to do," she said. "Now I'm finally here, a graduate."

How did she feel?

"Overwhelmed," she said, laughing.

Since its founding in 1927 as St. Petersburg Junior College, the school has seen tremendous growth. It opened in an unused wing of St. Petersburg High School with an enrollment of 102 students.

Today, it offers four-year degrees, as well as two-year associate's degrees and educational opportunities for tens of thousands of students. In 2004 alone, St. Petersburg College handed out more than 3,400 diplomas and certificates.

For Igbinosun and hundreds of others, Saturday was their chance to join the club of St. Petersburg College alumni.

"Seven years of school," said Chandelle Reese, 31, who was getting her bachelor's degree in secondary math education. "Now I'm just excited and waiting to get it done."

In his commencement speech, Bush spoke of the risks students had taken in choosing to go back to school, and the better life that their struggle to get an education could produce.

"You wouldn't be here if you didn't take a risk," Bush told the assembly.

He singled out students who had endured especially tough struggles, including a single mom with five children. He praised them for getting degrees in fields like education and nursing that would let them serve their communities.

"To me, success has more to do with using your own skills and experience to give back," than with making money, Bush said.

To emphasize that point, when the college presented him with an honorary degree, Bush chose to get one in education.

Other commencement speakers also talked about the reward of a diploma that comes with struggle.

Simon Shewmaker, who was getting his associate's degree just a few days after receiving his high school diploma, talked about how every student at the college had come there for a fresh start, because they were tired of the "same old, same old."

And Aeisha Perez, 25, who won the school's Apollo Award for outstanding leadership and scholarship, talked about the pride she felt at being the first person in her family to earn a college degree.

"I am so amazed that I could be given the opportunity to do this," she said. "I took (some) classes online. Moments like this make everything worthwhile."

Times reporter Donna Winchester contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or 727 893-8472.