WATERVILLE — Former Vice President Joe Biden, speaking to nearly 500 graduating seniors at Colby College Sunday, emphasized the importance of respect, dignity and humanity, and urged graduates to stay engaged.

Biden, who served as a U.S. senator from Delaware for 36 years before his election as President Obama’s vice president, told the audience gathered on the Miller Library Quad that the United States is respected around the world not for how it exercises its power, but for the example it sets.

Biden told graduating seniors to resist the impulse to throw up their hands after an election that played to society’s “baser instincts.” Acknowledging the disarray and chaos that seem to be sweeping the globe, he cautioned against the temptation to disengage from politics and current events and said it’s more important now than ever to return to basic principles and treat every person with dignity.

“It’s time for America to get up. It’s time to regain our sense of unity and purpose. It’s time for us to restart realizing who in God’s name we are,” he said.

In a ceremony that lasted over two hours on a bright, sunny spring day, the crowd cheered often as Biden recounted the triumphs and tragedies through his career, but makeing sure his remarks carried an inspirational message.

He said that after he was first elected to the Senate, his wife and daughter were killed in a car crash, and his two sons were injured. After the devastating loss, he said,  “everything had changed” and he didn’t want to stay in the Senate. But keeping on taught him valuable lessons about humanity, he said.

One lesson he learned was that it’s appropriate to question a person’s judgment, but not to question their motives. And he learned the importance of standing up to indignities.

“An injury to the rights of any person diminishes all of our humanity,” he said.

Biden said his father instilled in him that  “every man, woman and child needs to be treated (with) respect and deserves to be treated with dignity.”

“You have a responsibility,” Biden said. “All of us have to do better when it comes to building the bonds of empathy.”

Part of that, Biden said, is staying personal. During his time in office, he said, he met with every major world leader, and staying personal and treating people with respect is how he fostered productive relationships.

“That allows you to get things done in a complex world,” Biden said.

Biden said there is intense pressure on today’s young people to be successful in the world. But “defending dignity,” he said, requires more than individual success. He implored the audience to reach beyond themselves and make sure others don’t get held back.

“I don’t believe there is anything we cannot overcome,” he said.

Most of Biden’s speech was apolitical, and he didn’t mention President Trump by name. Yet he criticized the harsh rhetoric of the 2016 presidential election and the use of  “hate speech” when he thought those days had passed.

“This past election cycle churned up some of the ugliest realities in our country. Civilized discourse and real debate gave way to the coarsest rhetoric and stoking of our darkest emotions,” he said.

Biden also spoke about the need to end sexual violence, especially on campuses. He said everyone needs to stand up against “the indignity of sexual assault” and voice opposition to distasteful or crude comments aimed at women. “Locker room talk,” Biden said, isn’t as common as Trump would have you believe.

Biden praised Colby for supporting a culture of consent for everyone on campus, and urged the audience to carry that value with them into their home and professional lives.

“My father used to say that the greatest sin was the abuse of power, and the cardinal of all sins was a man raising his hand to a woman or a child,” Biden said.

Biden said his mother once told him that “you’re defined by your courage, you’re redeemed by your loyalty.”

Biden also spoke of the value of story telling that Colby students had learned in their Sunday night group, and how it was an important trait of a strong community: getting together and telling their stories.

“The problem that’s going on in Congress is we don’t tell stories anymore,” Biden said, and while that may “sound silly” the sad result is  “we don’t know each other anymore.”

When people don’t know one another,  Biden said, they come to dislike people who are different because they can’t see their humanity. That can lead to populism and blaming other groups for problems in your own life.

Yet Biden said he has hope that empathy will make a comeback in American civic life.

“I assure you it’s temporary. I assure you it’s transitory. The American people will not sustain this attitude,” he said.

“Life can’t be lived in a self-referential, self-reinforcing, self-righteous echo chamber we build for ourselves online,” he said. “Living on screens encourages shallow and antiseptic relationships that make it easy to reduce others to stereotypes, to write another human being off as a bad person.” Everyone is a “whole person, flawed, struggling to make it in the world, just like you.”

The year Biden graduated from college, the U.S. was engulfed in the Vietnam War and both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. There was a sense of hopelessness in the country, yet Biden never doubted his generation could “rewrite history.” He said he was proud of his generation, and that the class graduating of 2017 was even better equipped to tackle problems facing the country. He said that while they were graduating into a world of anxiety and uncertainty, there was no reason their generation couldn’t achieve more than his had.

“I hope you remember the ethos at Colby that sought to instill your sense of obligation,” Biden said. “A culture of mutual accountability, and caring. In other words, be a Mule, that’s what it’s all about.”

Senior class president Muheballah Esmat also delivered a message of inspiration to his peers.

Esmat grew up in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he’d never dreamed he would one day graduate from an elite U.S. college.

“Sometimes things are so far beyond reach and comprehension so we don’t even dream them,” he said.

Esmat’s remarks sometimes echoed Biden’s, especially the importance of personal connection and of valuing the people around you. When he was young, he said, his family would bring food to local mosques where a man once told him “in life we are blessed by strangers.” Esmat found those words to be true of Colby where, he said, everyone had arrived as a stranger and now they were members of a strong community.

“Colby brought us together in the hopes of being well -rounded, deep-thinking, clear communicators,” said Esmat, an art history major who worked as a Mellon Research assistant at the college’s Museum of Art,

In addition to Biden, Colby awarded honorary doctorates to political analyst and former Colby College grad Amy Walter; Warren Washington, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research; and Yoshihiro Takishita, founding president of the Association for the Preservation of Traditional Research.

Biden’s speech seemed to resonate with students.

Class valedictorian Baturay Aydemir, who received degree in biology/neuroscience and chemistry and will attend Harvard Medical School this fall, said the speech already had him thinking about how he might use his degree to contribute to peace in Syria. The native of Kayseri, Turkey, said Biden’s message of working together and being personal is applicable to work in a hospital, and in any kind of profession.

“It really is team work,” he said.

Fen Bowen, who studied environmental policy, said Biden’s speech inspired him to embrace other people’s unique perspectives. He also said he was struck by Biden’s comment about not knowing a person’s motive. Bowen said knowing a people’s motive is a way to find out who they are.

“No one is active for absolutely no reason,” he said.

Before leaving Waterville, Biden did take the time to stop for an ice cream cone. Biden, a famous fan of ice cream who will soon have a flavor named after him by Cornell Dairy, stopped in at the North Street Dairy Cone Sunday afternoon. After meeting with other patrons, Biden bought his cone with two scoops of ice cream. He also treated a few other patrons in line.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

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Twitter: @colinoellis