University of South Florida Sarasota Manatee celebrates 40 years with gala

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- On Friday night, Sandra Stone said she was pleased, proud and "quite amazed" by the number of people who helped shape the first 40 years at University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, and was eager to move into the next 40 years with an equally amazing group of supporters.

Speaking to a capacity crowd of 400 inside the Fete ballroom at the Polo Grill and Bar in Lakewood Ranch, Stone raised her glass in a toast for the university during the anniversary gala.

"For all you've done, all you will do to create a better strong university, I salute you," Stone said to a round of applause.

After a year-long series of events celebrating the 40th anniversary of the University of South Florida, officials held one last bash: a formal dinner.

On Sept. 15, 1975, the regional chapter of the USF system -- at the time named the University of South Florida at Sarasota -- it was renamed to include Manatee in 1998 -- opened to students.

Recently, the university rolled out a five-year strategic plan, lifted a limit on the number of lower-level students the university could enroll and installed several new campus leaders, Stone included.

The next few years will be about smart growth with

ties to the community and local businesses.

Pete Petersen, a 2015 graduate and co-chairman of the gala, advocates such an approach to help keep student graduates in the area.

Petersen is chief executive officer of Sarasota-based Dealers United, which brings together automobile dealers to negotiate better deals and values.

"Too many young people in the schools think there are no jobs here," Petersen said. "That is mind-blowing."

Petersen, who finished his bachelor's degree in business in 2015 after earning an associate's degree, said the university is well-positioned for growth and the next 40 years will be about branding.

"It's all about awareness," he said. "We really have a great school."

USF Tampa graduate Anila Jain, who grew up in the Sarasota-Manatee area, also served as co-chairwoman. She never earned a degree from the local branch of the college but always volunteers with USF, which she calls a great organization.

"When USF calls, it is always a 'yes,'" she said.

Manatee County commissioner and gala attendee Betsy Benac said she's always impressed by the way USF works with other colleges and institutions to improve the entire area.

"That's something that can't be beat," she said.

And while not an alumna herself, Benac's husband earned a master's degree in educational leadership at USF Sarasota-Manatee, she said.

There are about 17,000 USF alumni in the Sarasota and Manatee areas, officials said, adding it's harder to gauge how many of those are USF Sarasota-Manatee students because of the way USF previously tracked alumni.

The university is still local, with 88 percent of the campus population from either Manatee or Sarasota county.

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

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