The Bradenton Area Convention Center was packed to the rafters with family, friends and proud graduates Friday evening for the State College of Florida's spring commencement ceremony.
More than 400 students took part in the university's graduation. Among them was Victoria Kolbakh, who moved to the Tampa Bay area in 1996 to perform acrobatics at Busch Gardens with a Russian circus group.
Kolbakh, 52, made the trip from Moscow, Russia, where she was born and raised. She trained as an acrobat from the time she was just 6 years old and described the experience as "fun, but hard on my body."
During her travels as a performer, Kolbakh visited countries all over the world and even performed for a few leaders of the United Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), she said. Reflecting on her career, however, she realized how great it was.
"When you're young, you don't think it's that big of a deal, but now I look back and it's like, 'Wow, I had a nice career.' Back then it was so easy and enjoyable for me," Kolbakh said.
During her speech, Kolbakh thanked her family for pushing her to attend SCF and her faculty for making her graduation a reality. SCF President Dr. Carol Probstfeld also took time to honor the effort of her faculty and staff.
"I always enjoy boasting about the amazing students we have at SCF, but none of this is possible without the most professional and dedicated faculty in the Florida college system," said Probstfeld, before asking the audience to applaud them for their hard work.
Kolbakh stopped performing gymnastics just four years after she moved to the U.S. because of the toll it was taking on her body. She told the crowd at the Bradenton Area Convention Center that when her daughter first suggested that she join the physical therapy assistant program at SCF, she refused and called it "impossible."
But Kolbakh, who graduated with her physical therapist assistant degree, has always welcomed a challenge. It's why she became an acrobat, it's why she went back to college, and it's why she decided to be the student speaker at the ceremony even though English isn't her first language.
"I thought I should challenge myself one more time," she said.
The challenge was worth it, Kolbakh said, if only because it gave her an opportunity to thank the SCF community for taking a chance on her.
"I didn't choose SCF, they picked me and I'm glad they did," said Kolbakh, who initially applied to two other colleges but was only accepted to SCF.
SCF gave her the best experience she could've hoped for, too, she said.
"When I first found out I was accepted to SCF, I was excited, but also scared. But it was the best experience possible. The professors are so great in this school," Kolbakh said. "I can't compare to other colleges, but these professors in this program were so helpful, so dedicated and never made you feel like you asked a bad question."
To close her speech, Kolbakh left her fellow graduates with a challenge to keep pursuing success in their futures — without any shortcuts.
“There’s no elevator to success,” Kolbakh said. “You have to use the stairs instead.”
The ceremony’s guest speaker was Kevin Cooper, president and CEO of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce. Cooper used an analogy to share that while the achievement of the graduates should be celebrated, they should strive to pursue greatness in a way that their competitors in the job search may not.
He said a friend once warned him not to tell a prospective employer that he always arrives on time because that alone isn't impressive.
“A job is not a collection of things you do to not get fired,” Cooper explained. “It’s what you do to add value.”
To drive the point home, he compared the process of hiring college graduates to searching for a new car. In order to stand out, grads will need to go above and beyond.
"Think of it like when you're on a car lot. How exciting is the base model car? Not all that exciting," Cooper said. "You know why? It just does exactly what you'd expect of a car. It turns on, the windows roll on — it's a car. But when you're on the lot, do you know what you notice? Did you see the one with the leather seats? What about the one that can park itself?"
Sara Marie Lindsay, who was forced to learn how to walk again after her leg was injured in an athletic accident, won the Outstanding Graduate Award. Other finalists for the award were Christopher Davis, Clarissa Cumbo, Mary Lopez Marin and Trace Edward Gerber.