The graduates walked in to a solemn processional played by the State College of Florida’s Symphony Orchestra.
But what they walked out to was an appropriate exit track: an orchestral rendition of “Happy” by Pharell.
“That’s my mom!” shouted one young woman, cheering as the graduates filed out of the Bradenton Area Convention Center after Friday night’s graduation ceremonies.
About 250 State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota students received degrees during the ceremony Friday night. An additional 800 were eligible to participate in the ceremony.
Maury R. Kolchakian, a 1973 graduate from what was then known as Manatee Junior College, addressed the graduates. He told the class about a series of relationships he credited with funding his college education and opening doors for him after law school.
“Any time there is an opportunity, take advantage of every single opportunity that you have. It’s easy to just watch TV and have a beer, I’ve done that, too,” Kolchakian said. “They are going to make things available, but you have to take advantage of it.
Kolchakian’s story of leaving behind the ranches and citrus farms of Myakka City to work for victim’s rights in the governor’s office reminded the students to consider the impact they wanted to have on the world.
“I know I made a difference in the city of Tallahassee,” Kolchakian said. “It sounds corny, but one person can make a difference and you can be that person.”
The students represented a cross-section of interests, ages and pursuits.
Perhaps no student better exemplified the diversity of SCF, Manatee-Sarasota’s graduating class than Randy Allen Gilmore, who received the top honors with the college’s Outstanding Graduate Award.
The 49-year old works as a chief nursing officer overseeing a staff of 180 at the South Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center. He already has a master’s degree in health science, but Gilmore returned to school because he wanted to interact with patients more.
And although he studied alongside students young enough to be his children and has worked in health care for more than 20 years, Gilmore said the course load at SCF, Manatee-Sarasota challenged him.
“ I have a master’s in health care, but I worked harder for my bachelor’s (here) than I did for my master’s of health science,” Gilmore said. “The professors — they care. They are passionate about teaching.”
The other finalists for the Outstanding Graduate Award included Rhianna Lee Hesselrode, Wedencise Lubin and Morgan Rene Young.
Before they walked into the Vernon L. DeSear Hall at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, several students talked about the unique opportunities SCF afforded them.
Morgan Young, 22, said she would not trade her experience at the college for what she could have had at a larger school.
“I definitely got a lot of technical skills as well as real world experience,” Young said. “My teachers were really one-on-one and I’m definitely not going to go into debt.”
Several said being able to take classes at night, online or on weekends had enabled them to keep working.
Kassandra Murray, 39 was succinct in her description of how the school adapts to students’ needs.
“You kind of get in where you fit in,” Murray said .