Students from the Project 10 STING RAY stood next to a picnic table outside of the Campus Grind coffee shop. They waited as their names were called to receive a certificate.
Last year, this was their graduation.
STING RAY is a non-degree seeking program that provides students with intellectual disabilities education in a college environment. The program is not accredited but offers its students a certificate of completion.
While degree-seeking students prepare for the ceremony on Sunday, May 7, at the Mahaffey Theater, STING RAY students will not be walking. The program’s students have been petitioning for the past few months to participate in their first commencement.
Albert Moreno, a Student Government senator, organized the petition that was signed by students across campus. He helped STING RAY students collect nearly a thousand names to present to administration.
“I’ve been working on this project for about a year,” Moreno said. “I met a lot of these students while working at the Veteran Success Center. One day, I witnessed a completion ceremony and in my opinion, after seeing what they went through in a year, I was disappointed.”
Moreno said that after speaking with Martin Tadlock, the vice chancellor of academic affairs, he was told about the obstacles in STING RAY’s way. He said he would still like to see STING RAY students graduate with the rest of the student body in the future. But in the short term, he hopes to see a separate ceremony for students receiving any certificates.
“But the STING RAY students really embody everything this university stands for. The fact that they graduate outside of a coffee shop is unmotivating,” Moreno said.
The standard commencement ceremony, hosted at the Mahaffey Theater, offers a limited space of 2,031 seats. Those graduating are only allotted five tickets for their friends and family, a contentious point among students for years.
Tadlock said that the current ceremony awarded degrees and not certifications. To allow one certification program to walk, the university would need to offer the experience to all certificate students which could present an attendance issue.
“We recognize the value of the program. That’s never been in question,” Tadlock said. “They just aren’t in commencement for many, many reasons. Commencement is primarily for the awarding of degrees. We certainly can do something to recognize certificate programs.”
Tadlock suggested that STING RAY students fashion their own awarding ceremony in one of the ballrooms and said that he and other staff would be more than willing to attend in gown.
“We will gladly participate and support any certificate program that wants to award its graduates,” Tadlock said. “We just need to know where and when that will be held.”
There are two commencement ceremonies hosted in the spring, and one at the end of fall semester. Tadlock said that in the future the university hopes to host its commencement ceremonies on campus. He said that there is a theater planned for the top floor of the new residence building which could be used for the event.
Tadlock commended Moreno and the STING RAY students work so far and hoped that in the coming semesters the students could reach a compromise for both the program and the administration.
Dominique Moore, a freshman in the program, participated in the collection of signatures. Moreno is her student mentor. She said that she is excited about the possibility of walking.
“I can prove to people that said I couldn’t do it, or achieve, that I could go to college. I want to say that I finished the program, and I’m a college graduate,” said Moore. “High school teachers said I would never go to college. I never thought I would go.”
Moore said the program has helped her gain valuable independence, and even her father has seen a change for the better. She said that she and her brother discussed college but never thought it was a real possibility.
After she graduates she hopes to find a job at a local grocery store.
STING RAY stands for Students Transitioning into The Next Generation, Recognizing Alternatives for Youths. It has partnered with the Pinellas County School District, the Florida Governor’s Commission on Disabilities and the Florida Department of Education.
The mission of STING RAY is to help transition students with intellectual disabilities to become productive and independent members of society. Curriculums vary depending on the student’s needs and strengths. In general, the curricula focuses on employment preparation, on-the-job training, preparation for continuing education, community living, home living, financial planning, relationships and self-esteem.
Danielle Roberts-Dahm is the director for STING RAY. Dahm said the program came to fruition in 2009 as a result of a state task force recommendation to develop inclusive college options for this population of students, where little postsecondary opportunities were available.
“The whole premise of STING RAY is inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities with the same-aged peers,” Dahm said. “USFSP has been a wonderful campus to foster this inclusion with their focus on diversity and the students in STING RAY take great pride in being a Bull. The opportunity to walk across the stage and participate in the graduation ceremony with their peers is the ultimate culmination of their work while on campus.”
No STING RAY will be graduating this semester, and their next ceremony is still being determined.