MANATEE -- The State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota sent off 255 graduates at the winter commencement ceremony Monday evening.
Graduates came from as far away as Russia, the United Kingdom, Spain and Japan, while others were born and raised in Bradenton.
Other graduates earned degrees while raising families or dealing with personal loss.
The State College of Florida has now graduated 41,000 students in its 56-year history, according to school officials.
"This is an exciting time to be a student at SCF as our college continues to expand mission and reach," State College of Florida President Carol Probstfeld said. "This ceremony is an opportunity to recognize and honor the positive influence staff and faculty has had in the lives of our graduates."
During the ceremony, 10 Outstanding Graduate Award finalists were recognized for academic achievement, dedication and commitment to community service during their time at the college.
Patrick Odell was honored as the outstanding associate graduate, and Jason Patry the outstanding baccalaureate graduate.
Odell, who overcame a drug and alcohol addiction, serves as a recovery helpline volunteer and plans to earn a master's degree in mental health care. He accepted the outstanding graduate medallion with tears in his eyes.
Odell said he had been out of school 20 years when he started attending the State College of Florida.
Patry, who assisted with the STEMsmart Summit for the promotion of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in schools, received the 2012 Excellence in Energy Technology Management Award. He is also
a volunteer for the Lymphoma and Leukemia Society.
"This is the toughest thing I have accomplished," Patry said of finishing his degree. Patry said he accomplished his academic success with his wife's support and children's patience.
Outstanding Graduate Award finalist Angela Ford also noted the importance of family support while working toward her degree.
Ford, who has lived in Bradenton for 43 years, earned her bachelor's degree in public safety administration and a 4.0 grade-point average, while working full time.
"You have to have a good support system," Ford said. "Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something, because if you want it you can make it happen."
Linda Larsen, guest speaker, motivational author and State College of Florida grad, also gave a message of self-confidence and the importance of positivity.
"Happiness causes outcomes," Larsen said. "Happiness stacks the odds in your favor. It is a conscious choice to bring the happiest you to the party. How do you do that when everything is going wrong? You reframe it."
Many graduates were shining examples of such an attitude, school officials said.
It was a celebratory night. In the sea of graduation candidates, a few caps shone with rhinestones and personalized decorations.
Mariah Tiona said it is a family tradition. Her sisters also decorated their caps at their ceremony.
Brittany Rogers decorated her cap in memory of her aunt, who passed away in June.
In glittering letters, her cap read "WWMD," which she said stood for "What Would Monica Do?"
"That has become my new life motto," Rogers said. "She was a best friend, and she was the one who pushed me to go back to school."
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.