NORMAL — Friends and family of Malik Jones said Illinois State University's commencement ceremony was a testimony to his hard work and determination to get his degree.
Jones, who graduated with his bachelor's degree in curriculum and instruction, had been alternately working and going to school for the past eight years, so that he could pay for his education as he went.
"He's the first in his family to get his college degree and we're just excited for him," said friend Belinda Trunell. "We're all just so proud of his accomplishment."
Jones was one of 1,454 students who received diplomas Saturday at ISU's 147th commencement at Redbird Arena.
ISU President Al Bowman said students were equipped to rise and meet the challenges of the 21st century.
"Confidence determines whether our steps are tiny or big and bold," he said. "I'm confident you will enjoy life more fully because you understand it more deeply. I'm confident you'll be successful."
Student body president Josh Garrison reminded graduates that new buildings and a new president were not the only changes that have occurred over the past four years.
"A lot has changed since we first stepped foot on campus," he said. "And ISU has helped us change and grow as individuals."
Garrison challenged graduates to use their degrees in the best way they can, according to their personal definitions of success.
"As you leave here with your friends, family and degree, don't forget all that you have learned here," he said.
Don Shafer, president of the Alumni Association, reminded graduates to let this be a time of reflection not only on ISU, but also on students' hopes and aspirations for the future.
"You leave today with more than you had when you first came here," he said.
Shafer congratulated them on graduating and joining the other 160,000 ISU alumni.
"This is your class. You've attended classes together, updated facebook, watched South Park and played Texas Hold ?~em," he said. "And together you'll be a part of the legacy and future of ISU."
Mary Marren, who received her degree in interdisciplinary studies, described graduation as awesome.
"I never thought today would come," she said. "The past four years were fun, but hard work."