ST. PETERSBURG — The University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus graduated a record number of students this spring, university officials said.
About 360 students earned bachelor's and master's degrees, and nearly 300 were on hand Sunday evening for commencement exercises at the Mahaffey Theater.
It was a record year for USF overall, with more than 4,900 students earning degrees from the university's four campuses.
Those graduates ranged in age from 19 to 73 years old and came from 43 states and 97 nations, USF president Judy Genshaft said.
That diversity was evident Sunday night in St. Petersburg.
Juan Diaz, 28, who earned a bachelor's degree in history, came to Florida from Bogota, Colombia, in 1999.
While attending classes, Diaz worked full time at Regions Bank and founded Students for Social Justice, a grass roots campus organization dedicated to fostering diversity.
"We want to leave that legacy (to the students)," he said.
Krista Rutkis, 32, said "it was very challenging" to finish up the coursework required for her master's in education, while raising two young children. Rutkis did not speak any English when she came to the United States from Latvia in 1998.
Student government treasurer Ernest McDonald told a packed audience he earned his bachelor's degree in accounting against "a backdrop of sailboats and sunsets" at Bayboro Harbor.
The audience burst into laughter when McDonald talked about what he expected to find at college (professors wearing sweater vests) and what he actually found at USF St. Petersburg (professors wearing Hawaiian shirts).
After the ceremony, as parents milled about holding digital cameras and bouquets of flowers, graduate Rasheeka Forbes said goodbye to family members who were visiting from Miami.
The 22-year-old said it was challenging to finish her accounting degree while working to pay the bills.
The first child in her immediate family to earn a college degree, Forbes said it was well worth all the hard work.
"It feels like a big relief … and a big accomplishment," she said.
Rita Farlow can be reached at (747) 445-4162 or email@example.com.