OGDEN -- There were days when Jason Covington thought he would never finish his associate degree in nursing from Weber State University.
"Today feels awesome," said Covington, 36 and from Ephriam, standing in cap and gown, waiting for WSU's 139th commencement ceremony to begin after 51/2 years at Weber State. "It's a lot better than I imagined. It's been stressful, but I always remembered what I had made it through already to help me get through the next hard thing.
"Everything you do makes you grow differently," he said, with a tired smile.
Growing to meet new challenges seemed to be a theme at Friday morning's general commencement ceremony. Student graduate speaker Trevor Hicks-Collins made the audience at the Dee Events Center laugh when he revealed he initially avoided college since his career plan was to be a rock star. When that didn't work out, he became a business owner, but then was hit and severely injured by a drunk driver, lost his business, and sunk into a deep depression.
"Then my wife and I started taking classes at Weber State," said Hicks-Collins, 32, a magna cum laude psychology graduate. He became Davis campus vice president and performed more than 300 hours of public service in his time as a student.
"My confidence has been restored," Hicks-Collins said, adding that he now sees new potential for his life.
"Weber State has taught me to push myself beyond my limits, and to make myself grow."
Speaker Mark DeYoung, CEO of ATK, told graduates their ability to adapt and change would allow them to stay relevant in rapidly changing work and life environments. Weber State and its professors had given them the tools, he said.
"What you do with those tools is up to you."
WSU President F. Ann Millner, who plans to step down when a new president is appointed, demonstrated the sacrifices made by the graduates by asking students to stand if they were the first in their family to earn a degree. About half stood, accepting audience applause. Millner asked students, once again seated, how many had a job or graduate studies ahead. The vast majority stood, accepting applause and sitting back down.
Millner asked how many students had held a job while working toward their degrees. That cleared the seats, and drew cheers.
Board of Trustees President Alan E. Hall surprised Millner by giving her an award for transforming her community, then asked the audience to stand and thank her for her decade of service as president and her many years of service to Weber State before taking the top job.
"This was not on the program," Millner said, smiling but flustered by the applause and trying to get the audience back in its seats. "This is a day we focus on our students."
Millner declared the spring 2012 graduating class of more than 2,570 students "... prepared to succeed in your life, your community and your careers."
Honorary degrees went to DeYoung, businessmen and WSU supporters Paul Favero and Harris H. Simmons, and Gordon T. Allred, WSU emeritus professor of English.
Faculty members Diane M. Kawamura and John Mukum Mbaku were named Presidential Distinguished Professors for their contributions to radiological science and economics, respectively.
Proud family members and friends cheered as the gowned graduates were invited to move their tassels from right to left, signifying their graduation.
And Millner, one last time, reminded a graduating class to "Never forget you bleed purple."
"It feels like a really good accomplishment," said Kelli Frank, 29 and from South Jordan, of her new master's degree in English. "It was a lot of work, but it was worth it." Frank said she plans to continue teaching at Bountiful High School.
Peter Rolf, 22 and from Glendale, will use his history degree to teach at Salt Lake City's West High School.
"Words can't explain how I feel," he said. "It's surreal. I've had a great time at Weber State, and I made it through all those classes I didn't feel like I needed, and it was worth it. This is an enduring accomplishment."
Weber State plans to post the commencement ceremony on its YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/weberstateu, by April 27.