ST. PETERSBURG — As a hospital nurse, Jeanette Chaniel already had a career devoted to helping others.
But the St. Petersburg resident dreamed of becoming a lawyer to guide the less-fortunate through complexities of the legal system.
Chaniel completed the first step in fulfilling that passion when she graduated Sunday evening with a dual major bachelor's degree in criminology and women's studies from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
"It's been a long, hard road," said Chaniel, 52. "But I've made it."
Chaniel was one of 262 graduates who took part in the commencement exercises Sunday for USF St. Petersburg at downtown's Mahaffey Theater. Another 94 graduates were not on hand for the ceremony.
USF's Tampa campus held ceremonies Friday. USF Sarasota-Manatee held a ceremony Sunday and USF Polytechnic holds its today.
Jackie Fischer, 29, juggled the responsibilities of four jobs as she studied her way to a double-major bachelor's degree in accounting and finance.
Dressed in her cap and gown, the 2000 Northeast High School grad who plans to be a certified public accountant stood in the glow of the chandeliers in the theater lobby talking to family members before the ceremony. "I actually have a degree I'll love to use, which is so important," she said. "It's surreal."
Ceremony highlights included:
• Legendary local educator Vyrle Davis, who started the Ebony Scholars program and was the first African-American area superintendant for Pinellas County schools, was honored with a civic leadership award. Davis, who was unable to attend, was represented by his daughter, Celeste Davis.
• Seminole High School graduate Ivan Bengtson of Largo was honored as the semester's Outstanding Graduate. Bengtson, 27, an Army Special Forces veteran who was severely injured in April 2005 while on deployment in Afghanistan, earned his dual bachelor's degree in accounting and finance. He was named the college's 2010-2011 Unsung Hero and was the recipient of the 2010 American Red Cross Collegiate Leadership Award. "Always fight for your dream," Bengtson said. "Never give up. No matter how many times you fall — get up."