Varjorie Leone had nothing but smiles and high praise to pass along to her good friend, Ashley Marshall, who at the time was sitting among hundreds of cap-and-gowned graduates at the Florida State Fairgounds Expo Hall, at the 44th annual commencement exercise for Hillsborough Community College.
"She's like a little sister to me," said Leone, who was standing near Marhsall's self-described "auntie" Brenda Buster.
Leone, holding a bouqet of flowers, said she wanted Marhsall to know this: "I want to say that I hope she continues strive for greatness, that this is just the beginning and not the end, and I'm excited for her future possibilities. And I love her."
Buster said she wanted to tell Marshall "to dream big."
"There's nothing too hard that she would not be able to accomplish, and I love her," Buster added.
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Outside the Expo Hall 28-year-old graduate and computer programming major Lauren Ward-Jensen met up with her wife, parents, grandmother, sister, brother-in-law and friends.
"It means everything to me," she said about both the graduation and the family gathering. "It means that all my hard work paid off and they're here to support me."
"I'm just so proud," said Lauren Jensen, who advised her wife: "Keep your eye on the prize and keep on booking."
Jensen-Ward's parents had their own words of encouragement.
"From the time she could walk I knew she'd be here and she still has so much father to go," Mary Ward said. "I'm so proud."
"We're real proud of her, of all of our kids, being up top," said father David Ward. "I don't think I can give her any better adivce than [what] she's already doing. She's on the road and doing what she's always wanted to do."
The graduate's grandmother, Betty Smith, had her own shout-out to deliver: "Keep going, girl!"
"I just want her to keep excelling, because she can," Smith said. "I remember her as a baby and I'm so happy this day is here for her."
As for the emotions of the day, that was a given, as graduation marks a milestone one step further from the home base.
"It's empowering, not only for the graduate, but also for those who come behind them, family members and friends," Buster said.
Added Leone: "There's something about putting on a cap and a robe and knowing that you've accomplished something. It's an achievement by far."
Commencement exercises have been scheduled for local high school and college graduates through June 8. Our for these ceremonies.