Hundreds of graduates celebrated the culmination of long nights and hard work with family and friends on Friday night.
More than 300 students donned the traditional cap and gown for Gulf Coast State College's 55th Commencement Ceremony. One by one, names were called to the cheers of family and friends. Students took their long-awaited walk to receive their diploma from President Dr. Jim Kerley.
"I have gone through a lot [of graduations], but this will probably be my most special one, my last one, and definitely my favorite college," Dr. Kerley said.
It was a bittersweet ceremony for Dr. Kerley, who has lead the college for more than seven years. This was his last commencement as President because he will retire at the end of July.
However, he leaves behind a legacy, a new tradition is beginning. "It's our humble privilege to honor our graduating active duty and veteran students with a new tradition," Dr Kerley announced to the crowd.
For the first time, active duty and veteran students were recognized for their service with special red, white and blue cords.
"We have to sometimes sacrifice family time and our own goals and aspirations so being recognized it does mean a lot," Mickey Fernandez, a Navy Veteran and graduate, said. "For us, it's been empowering. You know, the sky is the limit."
"It is an amazing feeling because I have definitely put in a lot of hard work into it, and I've had a lot of loving support from my family and friends," Ashley Ballans, who received her Associate of Arts degree, said.
Ballans is not only receiving her AA this year, in about a month, she will also receive her high school diploma from Mosley High School. She is one of only a few students to earn both degrees at once through a dual-enrollment program between the college and high schools.
"I realized that I had enough credits to be able to come out to Gulf Coast full time, and finish my enough credits to get my AA degree," said Ballans.
"As a mom, to know that all the nights I stayed up until 2:00 o'clock in the morning finishing reports about George Washington or knowing that my mom stayed up and made a Dorothy costume for a Wizard of Oz book report, all of those nights have paid off and in a very big way for my family," Amy Hayes said.
Gulf Coast State College awarded more than 1,302 degrees for the 2013 - 2014 school year.
"You have made a difference in my life, and I say thanks, God Speed, and to all of you, congratulations graduates," Dr. Kerley, said to the crowd to close out his speech.