ESTERO – Caps and gowns framed the figures of practically every age group Saturday at Germain Arena in Estero.

Hodges University graduates like Dana Fulker collected associate, bachelor and masters degrees, and for many it was the culmination of years spent working days, attending classes at night and sacrificing weekends to study.

“I started my family very early,” said Fulker, 45, before Sunday’s commencement ceremony. “I always wanted to go back to college.”

Fulker earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a management minor after working at a property management firm for 16 years. Many of those years have been spent in Florida, where she and her husband started an arm of the firm Cardinal Management, growing it to 20 employees. She said she will continue next semester to earn a master’s in business administration.

Fulker said she realized her dream of going back to school and earning a degree only made sense following an afternoon she spent with several elderly, but energetic in-laws. She said she realized if they could stay active at their ages, there was nothing stopping her from returning to school.

Fulker, selected as the student of the year at Hodges, delivered the student address Sunday.

“If this were a traditional speech at a traditional university, I would speak about how you are passing the threshold of childhood, but many of you are far past that,” she said Sunday.

She recounted the experience shared by many of Sunday’s graduates, attending classes at 5 each evening, spending four hours trying to soak up additional information on top of a full day of work.

“As night students, at about 9 o’clock, our eyes would start to glaze over and a symphony of yawning would begin,” she joked.

She pointed to the richness of experience all students gained, as older students mingled with fresh-faced 18-year-olds. For Fulker, that generational melting pot is a family affair, too. Her son, Andrew Harmon, 20, is also a student at Hodges, studying computer information technology.

“It’s kind of hard,” Harmon said of watching his mother walk across the stage Sunday. “It’s quite an accomplishment to live up to – she’s student of the year, the student speaker.”

Fulker’s story is one shared by countless numbers of this year’s 528 graduates. The university prides itself on accommodating non-traditional students, with an average student age of 32 years old.

It was that mission that spoke to Michelle Bernard, the commencement speaker at Sunday’s ceremony. Bernard is a political analyst at MSNBC and president and CEO of the Independent Women’s Forum. Bernard’s family shares a narrative much like that of many of Sunday’s graduates.

Her parents, immigrants from Jamaica, had four children before their senior year of college. Her mother eventually put school on hold, staying home with the children while Bernard’s father completed school and residency to become a dentist. Her mother returned to school, though.

“I always think about how difficult it must have been for them to do that,” said Bernard, before the ceremony. “So I’m doing this in my mom’s honor today.”

As 6-year-old Megan Miller clowned around in a spare cap and gown that swallowed her little limbs, her mother got a glimpse of her daughter’s future, too. Kelly Miller works in the Hodges University registrar office, and brought her daughter to the ceremony as hundreds of other parents watched their children take to the stage.

“It’s wonderful to have,” Miller said of graduation day. “All of the students, after you’ve worked with them two to four years, and to see them graduate.”

For Elena Comperatore, the connection she has found at Hodges University is unparalleled. She enrolled at the school after leaving the University of Pittsburgh as an undergraduate.

“One of my friends suggested Hodges to me because I went to Pitt and I didn’t do real well with the big classes,” Comperatore said.

The one-on-one attention at Hodges and the professors inspired Comperatore, who earned her associate’s degree, then her bachelor’s. On Sunday, she received her master’s in business administration. She has found a true home at Hodges, too, where she works as career development coordinator.

“They really believe in the students and push them to do the best they can,” Comperatore said of her professors.

On Sunday, the masses of parents, aunts, uncles and children filled up the seats at Germain Arena and cheered, clapped, rang bells and blew bullhorns as roughly 280 of this year’s graduates took their walk. Some graduates choose not to walk, said university representative Joe Turner. The school has just one commencement ceremony per year, and students who graduated in December or at another time often move on to other things before the ceremony even takes place.

But Eric Robinson is staying put. He received his associate’s degree in computer information technology Sunday and plans to move forward to earn his bachelor’s degree from Hodges.

Robinson attended four years of school to become an electrician before suffering a mild heart attack. He now has a pacemaker, which means he cannot undertake electrical work. It was back to the drawing board, and in 2005 he enrolled at Hodges.

On Sunday, his wife, parents and father-in-law were in his cheering section as he walked across the stage.

“They’re excited,” he said. “Going to a college graduation is a pretty big deal. It was a college when I started, but now it’s a university, so it means that much more.”