A roar rose from the crowd Monday night as Lukas Oest stepped forward to accept his diploma for business marketing from the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee.
The 21-year-old, who emigrated from Germany for economic opportunities, heard the cheers earlier as well, when he was recognized as the Outstanding Graduate for dedication to USFSM, scholarly achievement and community outreach.
Celebrated by friends, staff and faculty, and his mother, Jeanette, who traveled from Germany to watch her son accept his diploma, Oest was among 200 graduates who attended the commencement at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, 1 Haben Blvd., Palmetto.
USF System President Judy Genshaft, PhD, presided over the 90-minute ceremony, her last commencement at USFSM. After 19 years, she will retire on June 30. As the ceremony got underway, she was warmly embraced by USFSM Regional Chancellor Karen A. Holbrook, PhD.
The campus’ four colleges – Business, Hospitality & Tourism Leadership, Liberal Arts & Social Sciences, and Science & Mathematics – conferred 297 degrees, including 20 master’s degrees, for the spring 2019 term.
“It feels surreal,” said Oest, as he prepared with other candidates to enter the convention hall. “This is the culmination of four years of study, really six years, from when I first arrived to go to high school here.
“The community, the students, staff and faculty at USFSM, they’ve been my family here,” he said. “It’s going to be bittersweet leaving all that behind.”
Reflecting further on his college experience, Oest thanked his mother, his host family and members of a local church for supporting his efforts as he now moves forward to oversee marketing for Bradenton-based Florida Worldwide Citrus, which specializes in sourcing citrus oils and essence oils that are shipped globally. He starts his new job in June.
Other graduates offered similar sentiments.
“It’s like a big, extended family,” said Lindsey Carlson, 25, who graduated with a degree in professional and technical writing. “You know everybody here. I’m going to miss all of them.”
She thanked her parents and said she looks forward to pursuing a marketing position, perhaps at a local nonprofit organization.
“I want to do something where I help people,” she said.
Nikita Rawls, a criminology graduate, said she’ll miss the small class sizes at USFSM, which enabled her to get to know her professors and classmates on a personal level.
“I thought the instructors were very helpful. They go out of their way to help you,” she said.
After eight years as a corrections officer, Rawls said she’s now aiming to work in the court system, but her long-range goal is to operate a group home for troubled youth.
One thing she won’t miss, she added with laugh, is the hour-long commute from Arcadia to the USFSM campus. Thankfully, she said, many of her classes were online, though she may soon resume the journey. She’s applying to USFSM’s criminology program to pursue a master’s degree.
Like other graduates who decorated their “mortar boards,” Rawls inscribed hers with a phrase. She wrote, “She turned her can’t into cans, her dream into plans.”
Business major Roger Walser can relate. He recently completed a journey of his own. The 24-year-old accepted a master’s degree in business administration after receiving his bachelor’s degree from USFSM two years earlier in accounting and finance.
The occasion was doubly festive as Walser was able to applaud his girlfriend, Lauren Scarry, who stepped forward to accept a biology degree. Between the two, about 20 friends and family members showed up to celebrate the graduates.
“I’m going to miss the small class sizes,” Walser said. “It definitely helps you to form relationships with your professors and the other students. I’ll miss that the most.”
Cassandra Benjamin said she had mixed feelings about graduating and moving on. The history major and winner of the Golden Bull Service and Outstanding Leadership Award said she looked forward to the next chapter in her life, but “loved being on campus.”
“I loved being involved in Student Engagement and working with the other students and staff here. We’re all really close. It’s like one big family here. It really is.”
Also recognized at the ceremony was Stephen Rushton, PhD.
An associate professor in the School of Education, Rushton received the Outstanding Professor Award, which is presented by the Student Government Association on behalf of graduating seniors. Rushton said he was “honored and deeply touched” to receive the award.
To learn more about degree programs at USF Sarasota-Manatee, visit usfsm.edu/.