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SPC graduates walk past applauding faculty at the end of Saturday’s graduation ceremony, the college’s 119th Commencement Exercises.

Surrounded by families, friends and flashing phones and cameras, St. Petersburg College’s summer 2012 graduates filed out of the First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks Saturday.

Approximately 300 SPC graduates participated in the college’s 119th Commencement Exercises. The college had more than 1,200 graduates this semester, according to SPC graduation organizers. Many received associate of arts degrees while others earned bachelor’s degrees in areas ranging from international business to nursing. About 2,000 people – among them proud parents, friends, siblings and children – attended the event along with SPC faculty and staff.

SPC President Bill Law congratulated the students and their families on their achievements both during the ceremony and in a letter printed in the graduation program. “You’ve invested much in your education; now, take pride in the contributions you will make to your professions, families and communities,” Law said in the letter.

Commencement speakers Deniann Grant and Juan Otazu

Graduates heard words of advice and encouragement from two commencement speakers. Deniann Grant, who will be transferring to the University of Florida, served as the former president of the St. Petersburg/Gibbs Campus’s Student Government Association in 2011-12 and the Chief Executive Officer for the transitional team of MYRA (Make Your Radio Active) Radio Network. Juan Otazu, a retired master sergeant who served in the U.S Air Force for 24 years, graduated this semester from SPC with a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

“Here at SPC there’s a place for everyone,” Grant told the crowd, explaining how the college offers an affordable education for thousands of students from a variety of backgrounds. Attending SPC, she said, allowed her to grow as a person and a leader.

“It’s passion not a pedigree that will win in the end,” Otazu said in his speech. Speaking about his own experiences to earn his degree, he had the audience laughing and clapping as he told them not to be afraid to start from the bottom and to persevere as they moved forward in life.

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The college’s 119th Commencement Exercises take place Saturday, July 21, at 10 a.m. at the First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks, 12685 Ulmerton Road, Largo.
Deniann Grant
Deniann Grant

Deniann Grant has pushed herself to achieve as a way to honor the sacrifice her parents made for her education.

When she was 11, her parents moved from Antigua and Barbuda so that Grant and her three siblings would have the opportunity to go to college.

“One of my big motivators is definitely remembering the sacrifices that my parents made to move us to America,” said Grant, 18, who concentrated on English courses at the St. Petersburg/Gibbs Campus. “You think about the things your parents give up—even their retirement funds—to move to a completely different country to start over so that their children can have the opportunities that I’ve had here at SPC. I want to honor that.”

Grant, who receives her Associate in Arts degree, has been chosen as the lower division student speaker for commencement Saturday.

At 16, she graduated from the Criminal Justice Academy at Pinellas Park High School and began taking classes at SPC as a full-time student in fall 2010. Selected as a Johnnie Ruth Clarke scholar, she has been to attend the college tuition-free and has maintained a 3.9 GPA.

In her two years here, Grant served as president of the St. Petersburg/Gibbs Campus’s Student Government Association in 2011-12 and Chief Executive Officer for the transitional team of MYRA (Make Your Radio Active) Radio Network, the project of the college’s new internet Radio Production Club. As SGA president, she oversaw the funding of the club’s equipment.

“She is the CEO of the club, which we’ve structured like a business,” said Mark Matthews, Lead Instructor of the Music Industry/Recording Arts program who serves as club advisor. When Grant stepped down from her role as SGA president, he recruited her to lead the student radio station because of how well she understood the process of running a club and how it should be organized.

“She’s been incredible,” Matthews said. “She’s responsible for doing the club bylaws and constitutions; she’s been interfacing with the SPC legal department. We have weekly meetings with all the staff of the radio station, and she’s been very efficient and organized.”

“Deniann Grant has helped to define the way faculty, students and staff view student leaders, not only here at St. Petersburg/Gibbs Campus but collegewide,” said Tyrone Clinton, Associate Provost at the St. Petersburg/Gibbs Campus. “As president of the Student Government Association, she set high standards for those who will follow in her footsteps. She also has shown her classmates that with dedication and hard work your goals are attainable.”

Grant will transfer to the University of Florida in the fall to pursue a bachelor’s degree in English. After graduation, she plans to attend law school and to later return to SPC to serve as a mentor to students.

“I want to continue in my education to not only give back to my family by setting a good example for my younger brothers and cousins, but also to give back to the community as well,” Grant said. “It’s about spreading knowledge and letting everyone know that it’s possible to do the same things that I’ve done at 16 or 18, that anything you want, you can get as long as you are willing to work for it.”

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Juan Otazu, taken in July 2010 while serving in Continuing Promise, a joint armed forces and multinational humanitarian mission to Latin America and the Caribbean.

St. Petersburg College student Juan Otazu sums up the past decade of his life with three words – passion, persistence and possibilities.

More than 10 years ago, Otazu, 51, started on his path to obtaining a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Those three words describe how, despite a variety of responsibilities and detours including military deployment to Central and South America, he finally finds himself days away from receiving his long-awaited diploma.

Those “three Ps” will be part of the message Otazu plans to share with fellow graduates and others at SPC’s upcoming graduation ceremony. He will be a commencement speaker at the July 21 event.

“You have to believe in yourself and anything is possible,” said Otazu. “If you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, you have to imagine the light.”

“I had to, while on active duty, fit in part-time jobs and education and my active duty commitment,” Otazu said.

Otazu served in the U.S Air Force for 24 years before retiring in 2011 as a master sergeant. Most recently he was deployed for about six months as part of Continuing Promise, a joint armed forces and multinational humanitarian mission to Latin America and the Caribbean. The mission provided medical, dental, veterinary and engineering assistance to several nations, according to military news reports. The deployment fell in the middle of his latest efforts to continue his education in the medical field, delaying his upcoming graduation by more than a year.

Taken during Continuing Promise underway in the Caribbean in 2010.

Otazu began his work toward  a medical degree when he first enrolled at SPC about 11 years ago. But he wasn’t able to continue because the class schedule conflicted with his work on active duty at MacDill Air Force Base. Eventually he was able to attend classes at other institutions to become a licensed practical nurse. By the fall of 2009, he was back at SPC and working toward his bachelor’s degree in nursing. However, the following year he learned he would be deployed to Central and South America in countries including Haiti and Colombia.

Once he returned, Otazu picked up his studies and continued to plug away at his course work. In class, he’s been described as an “informal leader” on projects. Even when he’s been busy juggling work, family and school, Otazu said he always tries to make attending classes enjoyable as part of his commitment to getting his degree.

Although his career in the military held up his progress in school, Otazu also credited his time in the service for helping prepare him for the next phase of his life. Much of his work in the military involved medical-related duties, such as serving as a dental clinic superintendent where he  managed enlisted and civilian staff at MacDill.

Beyond medical experience, Otazu said the military prepared him for a variety of challenges that face people in the workforce, from managing other people and conflict resolution to public speaking. “All of that, it will definitely carry over into your next career once you retire or decide to go into the civilian world,” he said.

Otazu now will become the first person in his family to graduate from college. His younger sister, he said, often asks him how he did it. He hopes his commitment to his school work and career goals help encourage others both older and younger to follow their own dreams. And, once they do that, get a plan and be ready to adjust to cope to whatever surprises come your way.

“I would say you have to create a vision and dream of that vision,” he said.

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After being named the 2012 Apollo Award winner during Tuesday’s Spring graduation ceremony, Alistair Glover delivered this speech detailing what SPC has meant to him. During his time at SPC, Glover was President of Phi Theta Kappa and the Student Government Association on the Clearwater Campus, as well as Communications Director and State Secretary of the Florida College System Student Government Association.

He also was named the Honors College’s Most Dedicated Student of the Year. In March he was named a Florida Coca-Cola New Century scholar. This followed his selection to the All-Florida First Academic Team.

“St. Petersburg College has prepared me for life in and outside the classroom by creating avenues for scholastic and academic growth and providing opportunities for civic and community engagement,” Glover said. “The most important lesson SPC has taught me is that success knows no age, gender, ethnicity, economic stauts or IQ.”

Glover participated in community service projects by volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, Salvation Army, Special Olympics and Relay for Life, just to name a few. He plans to study chemistry, economics and public policy in order to turn his passion for advocacy and helping the less fortunate into a lifelong career.

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Almost 1,200 graduates participate in Spring commencement

The ceremony, the 118th in the college’s history, was held May 8 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. Check out our Facebook gallery.

Among the highlights:

  • Helen Krauss Leslie was honored as the college’s Outstanding Alumna. Leslie enrolled in St. Petersburg Junior College in 1940, where she was the only female in her Mechanical Drawing class. Since then, she has been an advocate for the college and for women. This is the 31st time in its 85-year history that the college has bestowed the Outstanding Alumni award.
  • Alistair Glover won the Apollo Award, the highest honor an associate degree graduate can receive. He has received many awards, including USA Today’s 2012 All-USA Community College Academic Team and the Florida’s 2012 Coca-Cola New Century Scholar award.
  • Board of Trustee member Ken Burke, whose term has ended, was recognized for his long service to the college.
  • While about 1,200 participated in the ceremony, a total of 2,322 earned a certificate or degree from the college this spring.
  • Of those, 204 received more than one credential.
  • 102 were between the ages of 51 and 60.
  • Two were older than 70.
  • The oldest graduate was 74.
  • Among the associate degree graduates were 70 members of the St. Petersburg Collegiate High School Class of 2012.
  • For every two male graduates, there were three female graduates.
  • President Bill Law recognized the 33 college faculty and staff members who are retiring this year, noting their combined service of 720 years.
  • Christopher Grissett, one of the first to receive a bachelor’s degree in Biology from SPC, was the student speaker.

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More than 1,000 students are expected to participate in the college’s 118th commencement ceremony Tuesday, May 8, 10 a.m. at Tropicana Field.

Unlike previous graduations, there will be no student processional. Faculty and platform guests will march in as they have in the past.

Platform guests are reminded to enter Gate 4. Faculty and administrators who plan to participate in the processional should enter Gate 3. Administrators and staff who do not plan to participate in the processional may enter Gates 3 or 5. Gates 3, 4, and 5 are on 16th Street. Staff working the event should enter Gate Lower 6, which is on the north side of the stadium near 16th Street. Parking in Lot 1 is free to all SPC employees with an SPC  ID badge. Staff working the event should park in Lot 5, which also is free.

Two ceremony highlights will be the naming of the Apollo Award winner and recognition of the Outstanding Alumna, Helen Leslie. She is a longtime supporter of the college and began her distinguished business career here as a student in 1940. Both award recipients are chosen by the Alumni Association.

The Apollo Award is given to the outstanding graduate of a two-year program.

The finalists are:

Corey Burris, St. Petersburg/Gibbs Campus, is a December 2011 graduate and former Marine combat veteran.

As an active participant in the Student Veterans Association, Burris helped fellow veterans make the challenging transition from military life to student life.

He dedicated much of his time working in the Veteran’s Service Office, guiding these students through the business processes of SPC and the VA in order to obtain educational benefits and understand the resources available to them. Burris has participated in volunteer events at Bay Pines Veterans Hospital, including nursing home visits and donation drives, as well as serving as a student veteran representative at Sept. 11 commemoration ceremonies in the area.

Burris is enrolled at the University of South Florida where he is working on a bachelor’s degree in criminology. He hopes to become proficient in the Arabic language and culture in order to pursue a career as a Foreign Service Officer.

Mary Freeman, Seminole Campus, is a May 2012 graduate. During her time in the Early College program, Freeman has been an active member of Phi Theta Kappa, Student Government, Future Healthcare Professionals, as well as the Spanish Club.

She has participated in several community service projects, including Pedal for Pink, Adopt-a-Kid, beach and park cleanup activities, and has volunteered 150 hours at Bayfront Medical Center. She is graduating first in her class of 394 students, despite also working a part-time job. Freeman plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology and complete the MD/JD dual degree program with USF’s Medical School and Stetson Law School.

Alistair Glover, Clearwater Campus, is a May 2012 graduate who was President of Phi Theta Kappa and the Student Government Association on the Clearwater Campus, as well as Communications Director and State Secretary of the Florida College System Student Government Association.

He was also a representative on the Student Life Plan Committee, a tutor at the Learning Support Commons and a member of the Honors College Student Consortium. Glover has been rewarded academically by receiving the Rowell Provost Award, the Zalupski Achieving the Dream Award and the Departmental Award for Excellence in Biology.

He also was named the Honors College’s Most Dedicated Student of the Year. In March he was named a Florida Coca-Cola New Century scholar. This followed his selection to the All-Florida First Academic Team.

Glover participated in community service projects by volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, Salvation Army, Special Olympics and Relay for Life, just to name a few. Glover plans to study chemistry, economics and public policy in order to turn his passion for advocacy and helping the less fortunate into a lifelong career.

Danielle Price, Seminole Campus, is a May 2012 graduate. As a student in the Early College program, Price has succeeded academically and socially.

She is a recipient of the President’s List Award, a repeat recipient of the Mac J. Williams Academic Excellence Award and received the Pinellas All Star Class Cheerleading Allen Sports Center Academic Excellence Award, which she thinks proves that athletes also can be scholars. Price holds memberships in the National Honor Society, National Society of High School Scholars, Spanish National Honor Society and the Ebony Scholars Academic Club.

She has served as Seminole Campus Student Government Senator, Rotaract Club Treasurer, National English Honor Society Historian and a member of the SPC Career Center Planning Team. Some of Price’s community service work includes volunteering with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Habitat for Humanity, the Ronald McDonald House and serving as a jury member for the Pinellas County Teen Court.

Price’s goals include earning a degree in English Secondary Education and attending law school.  She plans to pursue a career as a lawyer, law professor or judge.

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From left: John J. Sygielski, president of Harrisburg Area Community College and past chairman of the Board of Directors for the American Association of Community Colleges; Alistair Glover; and Rod Risely, Executive Director of Phi Theta Kappa.

Honors College student Alistair Glover has been catapulted into the spotlight once again as one of USA Today’s 2012 All-USA Community College Academic Team winners. Glover was one of 20 winners from more than 1,700 nominees and more than 800 colleges.

Alongside the other 19 winners, he was recognized at Phi Theta Kappa’s Presidents Breakfast during the annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges in Orlando on April 23.

“I am honored to be the recipient of such an honor,” said Glover, a chemistry major at the Clearwater Campus. He was recognized in March as Florida’s 2012 Coca-Cola New Century Scholar, the state’s top award. As one of USA Today’s All-USA Community College Academic Team, he will receive textbook and academic scholarships.

“Meeting the other 19 recipients was a humbling experience; they were talented, motivated and possessed a passion for life that could be seen in their myriad accomplishments,” he said. “They will undoubtedly be the future leaders of America and I am privileged to be recognized among them.”

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The college’s 117th commencement took place Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011 at 9:30 a.m. and at 1 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks. A total of 564 graduates participated in the two ceremonies.

View Fall 2011 Graduation image gallery.

Watch the 9:30 a.m. ceremony

Watch the 1 p.m. ceremony

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From left: Jill Kennedy with her son, Eli Kapkowski.
From left: Jill Kennedy with her son, Eli Kapkowski.

On Saturday, Jill Kennedy will graduate with her bachelor’s degree in business, and a renewed sense of confidence and motivation.

At the afternoon commencement ceremony, Kennedy will share her story with her fellow graduates.

During high school, the Champaign-Urbana, Ill. native entered into the workforce without any interests or aspirations to further her education.

“I was anxious to get out of high school, and in your junior or senior year, you’re asked what you want to do and I didn’t know,” said Kennedy, 40. “I didn’t feel like I was smart enough just because of the grades I was making in high school by not paying attention, not putting forth effort.”

In 1998, she began her local career in Tampa as Project Manager at IBM. The following year, she began working for AT&T when the corporation bought IBM’s data networking division where she worked. Kennedy, who has a background in router configurations, now works as a Six Sigma Practitioner who is Black Belt Certified for AT&T, helping improve product quality and waste management through statistical analysis.

“Almost all of my peers were college graduates, and I felt that was something I needed to have as my experience as well,” she said.

The economy also indirectly played a role in her decision.

“As I started to see my peers being laid off because their work was outsourced, that triggered for me that this job isn’t forever; what am I going to do and where can I go?”

Realizing she had to compete with increasingly younger, fresh-out-of-college jobseekers, she sought an answer at SPC Downtown and enrolled in fall 2005. She knew this would not be easy, as she was a single mother to her 2-year-old son, Eli, but needed to ensure financial security for them. She found flexibility in the offerings of online and in-person classes.

“The online and in-person classes just afforded me what was necessary for me to get my degree,” Kennedy said. “The flexibility is what I needed because of a full-time career and being a mother and wife,” said Kennedy, who married in 2009.

She wants Eli, now 8, to understand the importance of an education through her experience and example.

“I’ve talked with him about how I didn’t go to school the traditional way, and that the expected course of life is that after high school you go to college,” she said. So when I talk to him, it’s not that he’s going to be in 12 years of school, it’s instead that he’ll be in a minimum of 16 years of school.”

Over the years, the mother and son motivated each other in their schooling.

“He’s ridden through this with me,” Kennedy said. “He’s been pretty much on this journey with me the whole time.”

Eli is her motivation for participating in the commencement ceremony.

“I wouldn’t have walked,” she said. “I’m 40 years old; I don’t necessarily think I need to walk, but I’m walking because of my son. It takes a lot of hard work to get here, but when you walk in graduation and you get handed that diploma, and I want him to see that there is a reward at the end of this.”

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Hillary Last
Hillary Last

When we think about diversity, we think about the elements in life that make us different. Usually, the first things we think about are race and culture. Yet, there are a variety of additional elements that contribute to making each person different.

Hillary Last, one of two commencement speakers at the morning session on Dec. 17, embraces the differences.

Last, who will receive an Associate of Science degree in Sign Language Interpretation, has unique experiences within the Sign Language Interpretation Program to tell the graduates and their families. A native of Fond du Lac, Wis., Last moved to Florida to escape the brutal winters of her childhood home, as well as to continue her studies in American sign language.

“I knew I wanted to move down here, but I wasn’t sure what school I was going to go to,” said Last, who often visited family in the Clearwater area during vacations. “I did my research and found that SPC had a stellar reputation for the program, so I enrolled as soon as I got my residency figured out and the rest is history.”

Residing in Tarpon Springs, Last has no intention of returning north. Instead, she plans to complete her Associate of Arts degree and possibly transfer to the University of Florida to major in business.

“With my future plans, a business degree would come in handy because I would like to open my own deaf services center,” she said.

To prepare for her future, Last carried a heavy course load while working two jobs and maintaining an internship. The hard work is preparing Last for the career in interpretations that she has dreamed about since meeting a deaf person when she was 13.

“I did community work; I did internships along with my own experiences, whether it be actual volunteer time or just social events that get you into the deaf community,” said Last, who connected with the deaf community by attending events for the deaf such as bowling, movies and coffee nights.

During her final term, Last interned at SPC, working as an interpreter in the classroom for deaf students.

“Through the disabilities office, they have set up resources for any student who has exceptional needs, whether it be blindness, deafness or other disabilities,” Last said. “So that provided me the opportunity to go in and work under the mentorship of the staff interpreters at St. Petersburg College.”

As she recaps her experiences as a student, Last hopes her upcoming speech will leave the audience thinking and considering life’s differences. Committed to dissolving communication barriers, Last not only speaks sign language, she speaks life.

“I would like the audience to take away the fact that there’s diversity all around them, there’s diversity everywhere and knowledge is power,” she says. “To know about it is to be able to deal with it and work with it.”

NOTE: Fall commencement ceremonies are scheduled at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks on Saturday, Dec. 17, at 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Those who can’t attend graduation can watch the ceremonies live online. Click on “Live Broadcast.” The broadcasts will begin about 9:20 a.m. and 12:50 p.m.

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