New College students graduate with flair during sunset ceremony Friday

SARASOTA -- Armed with fresh new diplomas from the New College of Florida ceremony Friday, 177 graduates will pursue more advanced degrees at schools such as Georgetown University Law Center, University of Central Florida and Columbia University.

Others are headed to the workforce for teaching jobs in Sarasota, Denver and even as far away as Thailand.

One will work in the Tampa area helping develop high-tech cancer diagnostic systems.

Another will head to the Democratic Republic of Congo to help build a hospital information technology system.

The New College graduates celebrated their achievements through various costumes and decorative garb in lieu of the traditional cap and gown. They said they will look back fondly at their past four years on the campus they've called home.

"This is a community everyone is passionate about being in," said 22-year-old Jessica Wopinski, who graduated from Lakewood Ranch High School in 2011.

After graduation, Wopinski is moving to Sarasota where she'll complete her doula license, which helps pregnant women before, during and after childbirth -- similar to a midwife.

Wopinski said she put together her graduation outfit by piecing together clothes given to her over the years with special meaning to her. She said she was channeling the Roman goddess Artemis, with wood-like makeup and a crown of leaves and twigs made by her roommate.

"This is overwhelming and sad," she said.

Not every graduate wore a lavish costume. Ciera Lipps, a 22-year-old Sarasota resident and Booker High School graduate, wore a traditional graduation cap complete with a Class of 2015 tassel paired with a white, lacy dress.

"I'm just for tradition," Lipps said. "A cap is a sign of all the hard work you've done."

Lipps will complete a yearlong internship in New York with the United Nations before returning to graduate school for a degree in clinical psychology.

Izzeldin Abuelaish, a physician and peace activist, delivered the keynote speech. Abuelaish, who received an honorary degree Friday, is the author of "I Shall Not Hate," and is part of a New College program that brings young women from the Middle East to New College with full four-year scholarships.

The world right now, Abuelaish said, has the talent and the intelligence to do good. But an element's missing that new generations can bring to the table.

"We need the good will to make the world a better place," he told the graduates. "You are the hope and you are the future."

Friday was a crowning achievement for graduates and their families at a college still dealing with the aftermath of two drug-related deaths on campus in May.

Dylan Besser, a 21-year-old University of Central Florida student from Boca Raton, was found dead in a dormitory room. He was a registered guest at the college.

That same weekend, first-year New College student Julian Toomsen-Hall, 18, of Georgia, was found dead in another dormitory room.

The Sarasota Police Department is investigating the campus deaths and the college is forming a task force to examine drug policies and substance abuse on campus.

The college kept its traditional after-party for graduates and their families, with some changes. Instead of an outdoor party with alcohol, the college offered an alcohol-free celebration with live music near the athletic fields

Palm Court, former location of the post-grad bash near the freshman dormitory, was set aside for peace and reflection, said spokesman David Gulliver.

"It'll be a quiet area," he said.

Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.

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