At 75, Askia Muhammad Aquil received the USF degree he started working on in 1966. He is shown here outside his office in Campbell Park on Feb. 9, 2021. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times ]

For many, college takes four years. For Askia Muhammad Aquil, one of 2,700 graduates at the University of South Florida’s summer commencement Saturday, the journey took decades.

“If you start something that’s worth starting, you should finish it,” said Aquil, 75, who entered USF in 1966 then went on to become a well-known civil rights leader in St. Petersburg before completing his degree this summer.

When he started, USF was but a few scattered buildings. Much of North Tampa was undeveloped and Aquil remembers “two or three handfuls” of Black students on campus, but no Black professors or administrators.

At the time, he was a young man named Otha Favors. He had come to USF as a transfer student, having studied French and Russian, with hopes of becoming a diplomat or foreign correspondent. He interned at the then-St. Petersburg Times and Evening Independent, now the Tampa Bay Times.

But in 1967, he entered Shands Hospital for emergency surgery on both eyes, the result of a retinal detachment. He dropped out of classes, always intending to go back, but stayed involved with student activities as the nation grappled with the Vietnam War, racial unrest, assassinations and protests.

“There was a sense of crisis all around,” Aquil said. “We began to ponder, where would our country, our community, our city, our campus, go?”

He remembered the speech he gave on April 9, 1968, five days after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. He said he and then-student government officer Steve Anderson, who went on to become a prominent Tampa attorney, attended a conference at Notre Dame University about structural racism and how to identify it. They returned home to develop a plan.

“Unlike other institutions around Florida and in other parts of the country that were steeped in tradition and hundreds of years old, USF was new, roughly 10 years old,” Aquil said. “We thought we had a chance to shape the direction and destiny of this university. So that’s what we set out to do.”

Aquil helped start groups where professors, students and staff could discuss contentious issues like implicit bias or structural racism. He felt strongly that the best path was to talk things out.

He got involved with a student government initiative to match fraternity and sorority members with K-12 students who were struggling in public schools.

He spearheaded efforts to create the first degree-offering Black studies program in the state, which later became USF’s Africana Studies department.

Aquil said today’s discourse surrounding race in the classroom and rooting out “woke, liberal ideology” feels familiar.

“The terminology has changed, but much of the sentiment is the same,” he said. “To dictate, and I call it dictate, what people can say and not say or what they can discuss or whether or not somebody’s feelings might be hurt that would give someone grounds to sue — it’s Orwellian in many ways.”

He remembered his days as an intern, when the newspaper had a separate section for coverage pertaining to Black people. He recalled days of separate water fountains and segregated seating.

“Some people make it sound like it’s ancient history, but I lived through that,” Aquil said. “That’s in my lifetime.”

In the years after, he founded the group Black Youth for Peace and Power and was surveilled by the FBI. He served as deputy director of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority, got involved with nonprofits and worked on affordable housing issues.

Ten or 15 years ago, he said, he thought about returning to finish his degree. But with family obligations and old student loans to pay off, he held back. Later, though, he paid the loans and finally the stars aligned.

After learning he was two courses shy of his degree, he enrolled in May, did well and earned a bachelor’s degree in general studies. He hopes by January to be admitted to USF’s Africana Studies program for a master’s degree.

Returning to the university, he said, brought him back to his days as a young adult.

“To see where we are 50 years later in 2022, it has been quite a journey,” Aquil said. “Not just personally, but in terms of where our society is and the kinds of issues we’re confronting today that in many ways mirror what our society was going through (then).”

He remains adamant that people need to stay vigilant about preserving their rights, lest history repeat itself.

His daughters and granddaughters were invited to watch him receive his degree Saturday. He said he hopes to teach them it’s never too late to keep learning.

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.