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Parent University Pensacola celebrates first graduates, prepares for year two

Parent University Pensacola is gearing up for its second year of program offerings, just weeks after celebrating its inaugural class of graduates.

About 150 participants met the requirements to receive a certificate of graduation, and approximately 100 of them took part in a June graduation ceremony at Pensacola High School.

“I love everything about Parent University,” said graduate Elizabeth Wright Hall.

Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Elizabeth Wright Hall is part of the inaugural class of Parent University Pensacola.

“I learned a lot, met a lot of people and a lot of resources were introduced to us.”

The great-grandmother added that she learned something new every time she went to one of the Saturday morning sessions.

“Health-wise, business-wise, family-wise, budget-wise, especially budget,” she proclaimed. “They had a lot to offer to learn in all areas, if you’re interested in improving yourself.”

Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Mercedes Porter, mother of four, is congratulated by Dr. Tim Smith, superintendent of the Escambia County School District, during Parent University Pensacola's recent graduation ceremony for its inaugural class.

Mercedes Porter attended the Parent University graduation ceremony with several members of her family. She was accompanied by mother and sister, who also was a graduate. Additionally, Porter’s significant other was on hand for the occasion along with their four children, all girls, ranging from infancy to 9th grade.

“From just navigating the internet and mobile devices with a teenager to first-time homeowners, and they even had classes for outlets for men,” she said of the wide range of offerings covering the needs of all types of parents.

The mother of four said just being able to bring her children along made her participation in Parent University much easier and more meaningful. And, with her graduation, she now feels more confident about trying to do more to better herself.

“I would definitely say so,” agreed Porter. “I have some vocational certificates, but just the thrill of walking across the stage again, now I’m like, I started looking at school again.”

“I’m excited to say this is our inaugural graduation of our parents, from a Parent University year,” said Michael O’Neal, founder and executive director of Parent University, which started more than 20 years ago in Savannah, Georgia.

At the request of local entrepreneurs Kim and Julian MacQueen, O’Neal brought the initiative to Pensacola.

"It's been overwhelmingly more than we thought it would be," said Kim MacQueen, while her husband applauded the support of Dr. Tim Smith, Escambia County's superintendent of schools.

O'Neal also was pleased with how the community area embraced the Parent University initiative, with regular attendance of about 300 and about half of those meeting graduation requirements.

“We have great numbers, but more importantly we have made a lot of emotional connections,” he said, pointing to the many relationships and bonds and sense of community forged through participation.

When it was time for the ceremony to begin, O’Neal summoned graduates to line up in the lobby, where he took a moment to personally congratulate them on their accomplishments.

“Listen, I love you all and I’m proud to have been on this journey with you, but we’re just starting,” he said.

When the processional began, the graduates, who wore black and red caps, walked into a musical rendition of the song, “Lean on Me.” The song by Bill Withers was chosen in place of the traditional “Pomp and Circumstance” march.

After opening remarks by Escambia County School District Superintendent Dr. Tim Smith and Pastor Tyler Burns, who provided the keynote speech, O’Neal addressed the graduates.

“Parent University’s meteoric rise will happen because of you, and me, and the community; this is our thing,” he said, just before asking the inaugural class to rise to be recognized.

Parent University Grad
Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Parent University Pensacola graduates take part in a recent ceremony honoring them.

“It was a blast coming to each meeting that we had,” said Tianna Anderson, who was the first graduate – in alphabetical order – to be called to the stage.

Anderson pointed to the joy of receiving gifts, including gift cards and door prizes, the comradery with other participants, and the boost to her own personal development.

“I would like to continue doing this, maybe invite people that I know and make other people come out of their shell like I came out of mine.”

That’s just what O’Neal wants to hear, as his team ramps up planning for year two in Pensacola.

“We hope to be able to increase our sessions next year and do a bigger variety of sessions, different sizes, and different focuses,” he stated. “We’re looking forward to next year, very much.”

The process for the 2022-23 school year starts on Friday, July 22, with a Parent University Pensacola back-to-school event at West Pensacola Elementary School.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.