PALMETTO -- Back in 1988, when the school was called Manatee Community College, John LaCivita skipped his graduation ceremony.
On Friday, he returned as the guest speaker and congratulated the 2014 winter graduates of State College of Florida, sharing in his first graduation ceremony from the school with a number of other students.
"I can't stress how important it is you met this challenge to complete this portion of your education," he told the more than 200 of the almost-600 total winter graduates at a commencement ceremony Friday at the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto.
LaCivita is vice president and partner at Willis A. Smith Construction Inc., a Sarasota-based construction company. He serves on a number of area boards and told graduates that every degree they earned helped to improve the community and its workforce.
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This year's winter graduates was the largest number the college has seen, said president Carol Probstfeld, with 598 students earning enough credits for a degree this se
mester. SCF is the area's first, largest and most-diverse college, Probstfeld said, attracting men and women from all walks of life. In 57 years, the school has awarded 44,000 degrees, she said.
"Each degree is a single achievement," she said.
For Mary Jane Fuller, the achievement was an associate's degree. In the spring, she'll earn her paralegal certificate. She's looking for a job now, but one day, she wants to continue her education. Eventually, she wants to become a lawyer.
Fuller was honored with the outstanding graduate award on Friday, which comes with a $1,500 award. The award is given to one associate-degree student and one baccalaureate-level student who has shown leadership, academic achievement and community service.
Fuller, 60, raised two children as a single mother. She was laid off from her job of 20 years as a copier technician in 2010. She thought she'd be able to find another job easily, but realized without some type of college degree, she was unhirable. She enrolled at SCF in January 2012.
"I was scared to death for a while, I thought maybe I was just too old," she said. "Once I caught the fever, it was my job."
Chris Laney, a 27-year-old Sarasota resident who is married with two children, won the bachelor-level award Friday. He earned his degree in technology management, and is already enrolled in an online master's of business administration program through Saint Leo University in Pasco County.
Earning the degree took Laney almost eight years. He worked while his wife earned her degrees. "Then it was my turn," he said.
Laney said he was a lifelong learner and that everything he has done so far will just continue to help him further on in his life.
"This is just one stepping stone," he said.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.