The countdown is on at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College as school officials get ready for a history-making graduation ceremony set for Thursday at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum.
"Aside from the last-minute adjustments, we're ready," said Colleen Hartfield, vice president for Institutional Relations at Gulf Coast. "Although it's a very busy time for us, it's also a tremendous honor to have the President of the United States deliver our commencement address."
Bush spoke May 6 at Oklahoma State University. After delivering the commencement address at Gulf Coast, he'll speak May 27 at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and June 19 at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y.
"More than 1,000 students and faculty will march in the processional,' Hartfield said. "Approximately 1,460 graduates from the summer, fall and spring semesters will be recognized at the May 11 ceremony. Right now our staff is working tirelessly to make sure this will be a memorable experience for the graduating students and their families."
Along with the president's speech, those attending graduation will be treated to several pre-ceremony features, including interviews with graduates, historical slideshows and performances by Gulf Coast choral groups.
"People will be arriving at the Coliseum early, and we plan on showcasing the college during the time heading to the 2 p.m. ceremony start," Hartfield said.
"President Bush's address to our graduates is an incredible affirmation of their sacrifices and efforts to achieve their college degrees," said Dr. Willis Lott, Gulf Coast president.
"We are tremendously honored and inspired by his commitment to support our students and their communities. What a great way to end a challenging, but successful school year. Our students deserve the best we can give them, and having our commander in chief speak at graduation is a testament to their resolve over the past nine months."
Gulf Coast students have been intrigued about the event ever since they heard the news that President Bush might be the speaker.
"The president is the top symbol of this country," said Gulf Coast graduate Yuji Inoue, who hails from Japan. "When I heard the news, I called my parents in Japan and woke them up at four in the morning to tell them the president was speaking at my graduation ceremony."
"When I found out about, I was shocked," said Gulf Coast graduate Shane Devine. "It's a great thing for the school and the community to have someone of his position to come down here."
"It shows his interest in helping the Coast recover from this disaster," said Charles Sullivan, a Gulf Coast faculty member for 39 years. "This is the largest gathering of Coast citizens since the storm. His presence is a powerful statement of support, and I am very grateful for that."
Coliseum doors will open at 11 a.m. Tickets will be required for entry, and all participants and guests will be required to be seated in the Coliseum by 1:30 p.m. About 7,500 people are expected at the event.
"Parking is limited, and traffic congestion is expected," Hartfield said.
Coast Transit Authority will be shuttling people from parking areas to the Coliseum's public guest entrance, which is located on the Convention Center side of the arena.
"Get there early," Hartfield said. "We can't stress that enough."