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Delayed by COVID restrictions, a graduate finally celebrates a milestone

Robert Papadopoulos

“It is still worth doing,” Papadopoulos said about returning to walk at commencement. “It provides a feeling of accomplishment, a visual representation of all the hard work and a once in a lifetime experience to put on a cap and gown and know you have accomplished a major goal.”

After overcoming the challenges of a learning disability, Robert Papadopoulos was proud to earn his college degree. But celebrating that accomplishment with a traditional commencement ceremony took longer than he or anyone else could have imagined. 

“Graduating is probably one of the biggest moments of my life. It’s like my whole life was working towards it in some way,” Papadopoulos said.

Papadopoulos, who has a passion for technology, attended USF’s St. Petersburg campus and earned a bachelor’s degree in Management Information Systems in the spring of 2020. The coronavirus pandemic had by that time resulted in a transition to remote learning. That semester’s commencement, and the several that followed, would be held virtually.

USF returned to an in-person commencement ceremony for the first time since the pandemic began in the spring of 2021. Vaccines were available and COVID-19 protocols were in place for health and safety purposes for those attending.

But the 2021 summer commencement will be the first to welcome graduates and their families who weren’t able to attend and celebrate a traditional ceremony the year prior. Nearly 1,200 2020 graduates are returning to have their name called, walk across the stage to receive their diploma and celebrate the long journey to earning their degree.  

“It is still worth doing,” Papadopoulos said. “It provides a feeling of accomplishment, a visual representation of all the hard work and a once in a lifetime experience to put on a cap and gown and know that you have accomplished a major goal you set out to do.”

The goal Papadopoulos accomplished was not only earning a degree, but overcoming a disability in the process. He was diagnosed with Slow Learning Disability (SLD) while in kindergarten, a disorder that can cause significant difficulties when it comes to listening, speaking, reading or writing, making learning especially challenging at a higher education level.

Finding a small campus where he could more easily develop connections with students and professors was one of the reasons he chose USF’s St. Petersburg campus.

“It was small and easy to get around, and while I was there had good experiences with teachers giving me more of their time and assistance as well as using the resources from the Student Accessibility Services office,” Papadopoulos said. “And the waterfront view was a bonus.”

In addition to support from faculty, he was helped throughout his college experience, and the many years before, by his parents, both USF alumni. Papadopoulos was inspired to follow in their footsteps at USF.

“They spent a lot of time preparing me for and then helping me succeed in school,” Papadopoulos said, who gave his parents a framed certificate of appreciation after watching the virtual spring 2020 commencement together so they received a diploma as well.

Papadopoulos said he learned some valuable lessons from his college experience, which were magnified during his long wait to walk across a commencement stage and fully celebrate this milestone. 

“College teaches you how to pace yourself, how to be ahead of the game in case hurdles come up or something takes you longer, so you can never fall behind,” he said. “All my life I was working towards graduating with a college degree and then at the very last semester, celebrating getting there got pulled from under me.

“I worked so hard for this goal,” Papadopoulos added, “so I’m not going to miss out on the opportunity now.”

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