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Eckerd College holds second annual Senior Step-Up ceremony to honor BIPOC students

By Robbyn Hopewell
Published May 23, 2024
Categories: About Eckerd, Alumni, Awards, Student Life, Students

Clockwise from back left: Deidric Davis ’24, Coral Rodriguez ’24, Thuy Tram Le ’24, Ava McLeod ’24, Briana Hashim ’24, Florida House Representative Michele K. Rayner, Pinellas County Commissioner René Flowers, Terri Lipsey Scott ’04, Kayla Rendon-Torres ’24, Elliot McPhatter ’24 and Ann Sherman-White ’06; photos by Carly Harshbarger ’25

Florida House of Representatives member Michele K. Rayner, Esq., encouraged a group of more than 50 Eckerd College seniors and juniors to walk their own walk at the second annual Senior Step-Up ceremony on May 15.

“Follow your path,” Rayner implored. “My path is not the path of any other legislator. My path is not the path of any other lawyer. My path is uniquely and divinely made for me.”

The St. Petersburg, Florida, native had been invited to speak to graduating seniors and soon-to-be rising seniors who identify as Asian, Black, Indigenous or Latino/Hispanic by Ann Sherman-White ’06, Eckerd’s coordinator of inclusive student engagement, because Rayner’s identity sits at intersections that are relatable to civically focused students at the College.

As a Black, femme, queer civil rights attorney and representative for Florida House District 62, which includes southern St. Petersburg and eastern Hillsborough County, Rayner has dedicated her life to advancing justice while maintaining a strong sense of self.

“As I am sure you understand, respectability politics never keep us safe, and they never set us free,” Rayner explained. “And ultimately, our path that we take is not only about making sure we are free but that others around us are free as well. That everything we do on that path is done in pursuit of justice and liberation, not just for ourselves but for all of us.”

Eckerd President Jim Annarelli, Ph.D., thanked the students for the work they had done so far to advance justice at the institution.

“When I look out at those of you who are assembled here,” he said, “I see strong and passionate commitment—commitment to academic excellence and to scholarship that not only educates our community but also transforms it. I see commitment to service-oriented leadership. And I see commitment to activism and advocacy on behalf of justice and equity.

Senior Step-Up speaker Michele K. Rayner, Esq. (left), a St. Petersburg native and Florida House Representative of District 62, speaks with graduates after the ceremony concludes.

“Many of you in this room have pushed our college community in ways we needed to be pushed and continue to need to be pushed,” he added. “And for this, I am deeply grateful. To those who will be graduating [in four days], I say, ‘You are leaving an impactful legacy.’ And to those who are stepping up, ‘Continue your invaluable work. We need you.’”

The Student Life Office hosts the annual celebration as an acknowledgment of the accomplishments of Eckerd’s diverse students. Student groups represented by the Culture Council (Afro-American Society, All About Asians, Coalition of Students for Indigenous Action and Latinos Unidos) have senior and junior members participate. In addition to the annual address, Annarelli and Vice President for Student Life Amy Falvo, Ph.D., present the graduates with a black-and-teal honor cord in recognition of their importance to the Eckerd community.

“As you embark on the next chapter of your lives, continue to be proud of who you are, stand firm in your values, and never underestimate the impact you can have,” Falvo said encouragingly.

Cristina López Miranda ’24, a biology graduate from Mexico City, Mexico, said the ceremony and address from Rayner were the affirmation she needed as she prepares to continue her studies at Washington University in St. Louis to complete Eckerd’s 3-2 Engineering Program.

“It gives us recognition for the work that we do, which we don’t often get as minorities in these spaces,” she explained. “Rep. Rayner’s speech was great and inspiring. As a young person, to hear that advice of following your own path, it moved me genuinely.”

Elliot McPhatter ’24, a marine science graduate from Kansas City, Missouri, was able to share the event with his father and stepmother, who came into town early for graduation.

“It was very impactful to have a speaker who I was able to connect to a lot,” he said. “It’s something I’m definitely going to be revisiting as a crucial part of my four years at Eckerd.”

After the cords were presented, Sherman-White led the students in a call and response to affirm and uplift the graduates and rising seniors as they embark upon their next journey.

“I will not allow anything or anyone to hold me back and deny me of fulfilling my destiny! I am my ancestors’ wildest dream,” Sherman-White chanted.

And the response from students in the Class of 2024 was equally powerful. “I am an Eckerd College graduate!” they roared in unison.