It's that time of year when thousands of students across the country get ready to graduate from public and private schools. But in St. Petersburg there's a unique group taking a walk across the stage after finishing four years at a local college.
It’s graduation week and there’s a buzz of anticipation in the air at Eckerd College. The ceremony is just about to begin and members of this class are too excited to sit or speak.
But this is not your normal graduating class
You see, this is the Eckerd College Pet Life Third Annual Pet Graduation Ceremony, where the pets of graduating seniors march to receive their own university certificates.
About 25 students and their pets took part in this year's ceremony.
William Clements has one of those job titles that may make you a little envious. He works as the Director for Pet Life at Eckerd College.
“Yes, we have pet graduation. These are all of our graduating seniors with pets. I think we have some snakes, guinea pigs, cats, dogs who are all just here to celebrate knowing that they’ve been here for four years. And this is their time to shine too,” said Clements.
Claire Pfeifer said the college's pet policy made her decision to enroll here easier. She brought her pet ferret Albert along for her college years. As we spoke she was stroking his long face and keeping him calm.
"It's meant a lot. He was one of the reasons I decided to come to Eckerd because I wanted to have him with me," said Pfeifer.
Eckerd College was one of the first in the country to allow students to keep pets in their dorms through their college years. They started this program in 1973.
This year’s event was held in—where else—Fox Hall.
Notes of pomp and circumstance swell and the procession begins. Tails wag, wings flap and toenails click on the terrazzo floors. Most graduates are sporting some very tentatively attached tiny mortar boards as they approach the stage.
Like most ceremonies this one starts with an invocation, this one from Reverend Elizabeth Shannon.
“And so on this day we give particular thanks for our critters. For their calming presence and their heartfelt cuddles. For the ways they help us procrastinate and the ways they are our families away from home.”
Then the roll call begins… and it's time to honor some very good dogs,
“Kara Brown with Griffin the dog.”
“Selena Bachelder and Simon the cat.”
and other pets…
“We have Ryan Dragoney with Nico the corn snake.”
One by one they join Eckerd College President Donald Eastman III on stage to receive their graduation certificates.
Kelly Ejnes had one of the more unusual pets this year, one that she said she found when he was very young.
“This is Patrick, he’s a Pekin duck. Yeah, I found him inside of a dumpster and then I convinced my mom to let me keep him, and the school. And I’ve actually always wanted a duck since I was little and it came true. I found him,” said Ejnes.
For any non-pet lovers who find all of this maybe a little silly and self-indulgent consider this:
In a study by the American College Health Association, Florida International University students said stress, anxiety, work and sleep difficulties were affecting their academic performance. Another survey said students ranking themselves as emotionally healthy were at the lowest level since they began collecting data 25 years ago.
And in multiple studies pet ownership has been shown to reduce blood pressure, anxiety and even help patients recover from illnesses like heart disease. So the Eckerd College program can be a welcome diversion for overwhelmed students.
“You know you come home from a long day of classes and you have a dog to hold at the end of the day. A lot of students talk about having something to care about as well. They have something that they need to take care of and it gives them a little bit more responsibility,” said Clements.
Unlike their human counterparts these graduates won’t worry about the state of the job market and they will proudly move back in with their families immediately following the ceremony.
And this ceremony for pets will continue next year at Eckerd College. But not for these graduates.
Now it’s time for them to walk, waddle, slither and scurry confidently into their futures.