PHOTOS: Despite downturn, FGCU commencement excites graduates, families

Communications graduate Kelly Castronovo is greeted by University President Wilson Bradshaw as she receives her diploma during the Florida Gulf Coast University commencement ceremony Sunday at Germain Arena in Estero. Lexey Swall/Staff

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Communications graduate Kelly Castronovo is greeted by University President Wilson Bradshaw as she receives her diploma during the Florida Gulf Coast University commencement ceremony Sunday at Germain Arena in Estero. Lexey Swall/Staff

Florida Gulf Coast University

10501 FGCU Blvd S., Fort Myers, FL

— As much as commencement means to graduates, it may mean more to their families.

So it seemed on Sunday at Florida Gulf Coast University’s spring commencement, when more than 5,800 parents, siblings and grandparents gathered at Germain Arena to watch loved ones march across a stage and into the next chapter of their lives.

They cheered and hooted and hollered for their graduates, and when it was all over, they pulled them away for pictures.

"I think they’re proud of the accomplishment," Megan Valone, 25, a graduate in Resort and Hospitality Management, said as her parents, fiance and sister stood by.

"I’m proud I finished," she said.

The university celebrated its 24th commencement by turning the tassels on 245 master’s degree graduates and 932 bachelor’s degree graduates. Sunday’s ceremony also marked the first graduating class of the university’s Bower School of Music.

The next step could be a difficult one for graduates. Unemployment remains high in Florida and across the nation, and young workers have struggled more than others. In 2009, 14.7 percent of workers ages 20 to 24 and 10.6 percent of workers between ages 25 and 29 were unemployed, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only teenagers experienced higher unemployment rates.

Commencement speaker Dr. John Little, a career neurosurgeon and 2003 graduate of the university’s Executive MBA program, said those who weather the economic downturn will emerge stronger.

"Even though times are tough, the way you respond to this test will be a bellwether to your future success," he said.

Valone, for one, expressed confidence in finding work. The hospitality industry always fares well in Florida, she said, and the school is good about connecting students with job leads.

Several graduates in the master’s program said they were already working. Maria Gonzalez, 24, received her MBA at the behest of the firm she works for, she said.

"Most of the people I graduated with already have jobs," Gonzalez said.

There was far more celebrating than hand-wringing on Sunday. A beach ball made its appearance early in the ceremony, and many graduates wore mortarboards decorated with sequined messages for family and friends.

Faculty members, draped in the various gowns, stolls and medals of their alma maters, paraded into the arena like brightly plumed birds. Students cheered when they saw their college banners held aloft and lifted to the stage.

Little, the speaker, laced an inspirational speech with practical advice. He warned students against turning themselves into "commodities," or working in jobs that are easily outsourced. He also told graduates to reach deep and discover their own abilities.

"I believe we all possess substantial untouched potential—our own personal genius," Little said.

Student government president Isaac Roman encouraged fellow graduates to maintain high standards at work and home.

"My only challenge to you is to be an individual of integrity," Roman said .

After two-and-a-quarter hours and an exhausted list of graduate names, the graduates cheered themselves, their families and the still-young school, whose name they’ll tack on their walls and place in their resumes.

University president Wilson Bradshaw asked graduates to do the school justice.

"Your achievement, service and loyalty to others will contribute to the greatness of Florida Gulf Coast University," Bradshaw said.

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