TAMPA — In a way, Gwendolyn Stephenson, the president of Hillsborough Community College, knows how graduates feel.
The excitement, the nervousness, the sadness of leaving a place that feels like home.
After 13 years of making her mark on HCC, Stephenson will retire in June. Trustees this week said a community college president from Arizona is their leading contender to replace her.
On Friday, Stephenson made her final commencement address, letting graduates know they are not alone.
"In a very real sense, I, too, am following you out the door and on to the next challenging and exciting and, I hope, rewarding chapter of our lives," she said to an audience of more than 600 graduates and their supporters at the Florida State Fairgrounds.
More than 3,600 students were eligible for graduation Friday, receiving associate in arts, associate in science and associate in applied science degrees as well as college credit certificates. During Stephenson's 13 years of service, more than 275,000 students attended HCC.
Her humble beginnings helped her relate, she said, to the many students who came to HCC in search of a better life.
With a father who had only a second-grade education and a mother who finished just one year of college, Stephenson said she understands the importance of writing your own future.
"HCC is a place where you gained the knowledge, skills and ability necessary to reinvent your life, to change your life, to change yourself, to change your narrative, regardless of your circumstances," she said.
During Stephenson's tenure, the school saw improvements such as the addition of a fifth campus at SouthShore Center in Ruskin and the creation of more than 170 academic programs.
Students also had someone to look up to, said Gabriel Spradlin, a 30-year-old who graduated with an associate in arts degree.
"She's been a real inspiration to everybody, it's really sad that she's leaving this place," he said.
For Stephenson, it has been a labor of love.
"I often think of success as being able to earn a living by doing the work that you love. And how fortunate I have been to be able to do that for the past 42 years," she said.
Graduates can follow in her footsteps toward a career they love, she said, with simple advice: "Link passion with purpose."