As a freshman at Saint Leo College in 1979, Julianna O'Connor-Connolly had the distinction of being the fastest woman ever to run a 4-mile race in her native Cayman Islands.
After graduation, she continued breaking records, becoming the first woman elected to her country's parliament.
Fifteen years after her own commencement, O'Connor-Connolly returned to Pasco County for Saint Leo's graduation ceremonies Sunday.
Seated onstage with some of her former professors, O'Connor-Connolly became the first woman to receive the college's distinguished alumnus award.
"This was very much a surprise to me," O'Connor-Connolly told more than 400 graduates who gathered with friends and family at the Bowman Activities Center on Sunday afternoon. "But I guess, being a politician, I should always come ready to speak."
O'Connor-Connolly praised Saint Leo as a "great college and, to me, the best college."
Its small size and family atmosphere nurtured her as a student and set her on her way to success, she said.
"Saint Leo did not guarantee success, but it did instill in me morals and values . . . and the desire to make God my partner and first priority," she said.
Several family members, including O'Connor-Connolly's two children, Kamaal, 11, and Kimberly, 4, traveled from Grand Cayman to attend the ceremony.
As a list of O'Connor-Connolly's numerous firsts were read, audience members interrupted several times with applause.
The first in her family to attend college, O'Connor-Connolly chose Saint Leo after she made several visits to Florida for international track competitions.
With a degree in physical education, she graduated with the highest grade-point average in her class.
She returned to the Cayman Islands and, in November 1996, she was elected to parliament and serves as the country's minister of community affairs, sports, women, youth and culture.
O'Connor-Connolly urged graduates to heed the wisdom of their instructors at Saint Leo.
"I am grateful to Saint Leo for remembering me as I remember fondly my time here," she said.
"I have many stories I still tell my children. . . . Put God first and you will succeed."