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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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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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