COLUMBIA -- While suspended quarterback Stephen Garcia continues to await a verdict on his college football career at South Carolina, the 23-year-old's undergraduate academic career at the school ended Saturday morning with a walk across the Colonial Life Arena stage.

Garcia shook the hand of USC president Harris Pastides and accepted his degree in sociology as a part of the university's graduation ceremony. Garcia called graduation the "first step" on the road to a return to the team, though his fate is ultimately in the hands of Pastides, athletic director Eric Hyman and coach Steve Spurrier.

Since his indefinite suspension was announced by Hyman on April 6, just days before the spring game, Garcia has been working to complete his classwork. He said he has regularly communicated with Spurrier and quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus.

Though Garcia could transfer anywhere as a graduate student -- something even Spurrier has mentioned -- he has said he wants to return to USC for his fifth and final season. The Gamecocks reached the SEC championship game a year ago for the first time, and Garcia believes the 2011 team has a good chance to return to Atlanta and win the school's first SEC title.

A decision is expected in the next few weeks, and many anticipate Garcia will be reinstated by June, in time for summer workouts.

Garcia has been suspended five times in four-plus years, the most recent coming after an outburst at an SEC-mandated life skills function. Garcia later admitted to Spurrier he had been drinking before the meeting.

Earlier this week, Spurrier deemed Garcia's repeated misdeeds as "several minor, immature issues." Garcia has not been arrested since his first semester, in 2007. The suspensions have not involved police at all since a 2008 citation for having alcohol on campus.

Garcia missed the first week of this spring because of an incident during bowl week involving alcohol and girls in his Atlanta hotel room. He "guaranteed" after that suspension that he would stay out of trouble, only to again wind up in hot water less than two weeks later.

The arena, filled with about 15,000 graduates, friends and family, had a mild reaction when Garcia's name was announced. A few people applauded and cheered while at least one booed. Others seemed to gasp as they heard the familiar name amid hundreds of others. He strode across the stage, smiling, and was greeted by USC trustee Mark Buyck at the opposite side. Buyck, a family friend throughout Garcia's stay at USC, came all the way off the stage to greet and congratulate Garcia.

Among other USC players who graduated were former linebacker Jasper Brinkley, former defensive end Cliff Matthews and current defensive tackle Travian Robertson.