Be risk-takers, FEMA's Fugate tells SF College grads


Craig Fugate, the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), addresses the graduates during the Santa Fe College 2013 Spring Commencement Ceremony held in the capacity filled gym at the college, in Gainesville Friday May 3, 2013.

Brad McClenny / The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, May 3, 2013 at 10:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 3, 2013 at 11:21 p.m.

As he faced the 700 students who participated in Santa Fe College's commencement ceremony Friday evening, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate provided some straightforward advice: Take a risk.

"You've pushed yourself so far," he told the students, who represented more than half of SF College's graduating class. "But what about tomorrow?"

Fugate, an alumnus of the college, was guest speaker at Friday's ceremony inside SF College's standing-room-only gymnasium.

Raised in Alachua County, Fugate attended fire college and paramedic school at SF College after graduating from Santa Fe High School in 1977.

He began his career as a firefighter, then became Alachua County's emergency management director in 1987.

From 1997 to 2009, he worked at the state Bureau of Preparedness and Response, first as the chief and then as the director. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Fugate as administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

As the steady rains of this week finally cleared, Fugate spoke to spring graduates about service, opportunity and the importance of risk-taking.

With the news on the TV of a recession, the deficit and gridlock in Congress, he said, there's a tendency for people to think that there's no hope.

But in his roughly 30 years of dealing with disasters, Fugate said, he's seen some remarkable actions in the most hopeless of places.

He described the scene in Joplin, Mo., in May 2011, after a massive tornado devastated the town. Neighbors became the true first responders, he said, pulling their friends from the rubble and helping them to safety.

"They weren't waiting for anybody," he said.

Fugate urged the spring grads to embrace that idea.

"We don't always know what will happen," he said. But a true survivor can persevere to get through anything.

SF College president Jackson Sasser said this year's graduating class — about 1,300 — is the largest in school history.

Fifty-two of those grads are dual-enrollment students, who will graduate from high school in a few weeks.

Sasser and SF College Board of Trustees chairman Robert Hudson emphasized the school's recent recognition by the Aspen Institute as one of the 10 best community colleges in the nation.

Both Hudson and Sasser attributed much of the college's success to the hard work and dedication of its students.

"Your minds are well-prepared for whatever the future holds," Hudson said.

As the first rows of students began to cross the stage, the rest fidgeted in their seats, adjusting their mortarboards adorned with glitter, gemstones and phrases like "thanks mom" and "GET'ER DONE."

Parents, grandparents and other family members looked on proudly as their graduates crossed the stage. In the stands, people tried to keep the oversized "Congrats, Grad!" balloons from escaping to the ceiling. Little brothers and sisters waved, clapped and yelled out names.

Some families had cheering sections for their graduates, where they jumped up and down in the stands, hollering congratulations in English and Spanish. Others just clapped, tears in their eyes.

When the ceremony was over, the graduates and their friends and families flooded the lawn in front of the gym, hugging, kissing, congratulating.

Darrell Pons, 22, stood slightly away from the throng, grinning ear to ear. He received an associate's degree in engineering.

For now he's just focused on fishing. His first professional tournament, when he'll fish for largemouth bass, is next week. He said he might want to pursue another degree at the University of Florida.

But on Friday night, he was just glad to be done.

"It is a relief," he said.

Across the street, Timothy and Donna Kelly, of Citrus County, were taking pictures with their only child, 23-year-old Audrey Kelly. Audrey's boyfriend, Kevin Drawdy, looked on as the proud parents congratulated their daughter.

Donna Kelly was not pleased that her daughter, who earned a bachelor's degree in health administration, was left out of the printed programs.

"But we got to hear her name," she said, beaming.

Though Audrey already has a job as an x-ray technologist at Shands at UF, she, too, was glad to be finished with school for the moment.

"It's like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders," she said.

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