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Award recipients from 2024 MLK Awards Banquet.

Award recipients of this year's Martin Luther King Jr. Awards Banquet hosted by USF St. Petersburg.

Recognizing students keeping Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream alive

By Matthew Cimitile, University Communications and Marketing

Nearly 20 youths from throughout Pinellas County were recognized for advancing the ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during an inspirational ceremony at USF St. Petersburg on January 11. Middle, high school and college students were celebrated for overcoming adversity, fighting for social justice and lifting up their communities.

They included a middle schooler who worked with students with learning disabilities, a 17-year-old inspired by her single mom to be the best version of herself and a USF St. Petersburg student spreading positivity throughout the community.

The fifth annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Awards Banquet drew more than 100 people to the University Student Center Ballrooms for an evening filled with powerful talks about the meaning of Dr. King’s life and ideals and an award presentation to students following in his footsteps. Musical performances from Allyssa Jones, USF director of vocal ensembles, added to the festivities. 

Students, their families and guests were welcomed by USF St. Petersburg Regional Chancellor Christian Hardigree, who spoke about why the campus hosts such an event each year and the positive outcomes of facing adversity. 

“Each of you has overcome adversity in your young lives, whether it’s physical, financial or emotional. You are stronger as a result, and we’re delighted we get to recognize you for those accomplishments,” Hardigree said. 

Instead of a traditional keynote speech, the event featured a fireside chat among two community leaders. Nikki Gaston Capehart, the president and CEO of the Pinellas County Urban League, and Frank Pyrtle III, a USF professor of mechanical engineering and president of the USF Black Faculty and Staff Association, held a conversation about their personal journeys to where they are today. They touched on issues with relevance to the city of St. Petersburg and the Black community, including economic development, workforce training, finding inner determination for success and the importance of role models. 

“Without having some models or a goal before me, my vision of what I could be was limited,” Pyrtle said. “It wasn’t until someone could show me examples of how I could do this or that with my life. You plant seeds of hope in young kids, in the community, and it becomes beneficial to everyone.”

Crowd at MLK Awards Banquet

More than 100 family members, guests, elected officials and USF St. Petersburg faculty and staff came out to recognize students lifting up their community during the banquet.

The highlight of the evening was hearing from some of the students themselves, who were honored for an array of accomplishments.

Rebecca Boylan of Dunedin Highland Middle School spoke of how her family has motivated her to do community service, from a grandmother who has been her partner in cleaning up beaches to her mother who works with special needs students. Last summer, Boylan worked with her mom at an extended school year program for special needs students at a local high school. She was given the opportunity to work with people from different ages, backgrounds and abilities, which gave her a better understanding of people’s differences and how one person can make a positive change. 

Carmen Antequera of Tarpon Springs High School talked about how her mom, a single mother and teacher, inspired her to be the best version of herself by overcoming obstacles and adversity. Antequera has made sure to take advantage of opportunities available to her by becoming a member of the Tarpon Springs Leadership Conservatory for the Arts, which integrates leadership skills, the performing arts and advanced technology to build a student’s creative ability. She is also president of her school’s Vet club. Getting involved in these programs, she said, has shaped who she is today.

Kenneth Bright, a student at USF St. Petersburg, highlighted how positivity and recognizing others have impacted how he interacts with people. 

“It stems from my faith and the belief that all people are created equal, that we are all on the same team, fighting for equality in our own way,” he said. 

The students received standing ovations from the crowd after accepting their awards and giving their speeches, a proud acknowledgment from the community they are improving. 

“Through your actions, you have proved that you’re the kind of students who want to make a difference in the world,” Hardigree said. “I love the quote from Dr. King that the planning committee elected to highlight this year: ‘“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”’ You have all done great things, both big and small.”

The awards banquet was sponsored by USF’s Black Leadership Network and Isaac McKinney III, a USF St. Petersburg campus board member.

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