UNITY — Terry Tempest Williams, author, activist and conservationist, told Unity College seniors about to graduate Saturday that they are part of conservation history – part of a college that is leading the country and world toward emancipatory education.

“Unity College is the first American college to divest from fossil fuels,” Williams said.

Williams, who received an honorary doctorate of sustainability science from college President Stephen Mulkey, said she is grateful for the college’s leadership in climate change and sustainability efforts, which has been watched closely around the nation and world.

“You cannot know the full impact of your leadership,” she said.

Williams spoke at Unity’s 46th commencement ceremonies at Tozier Auditorium on the campus, where students learn about the environment and natural resources through experiential and collaborative learning.

Unity was one of several Maine colleges that held graduation ceremonies Saturday. The others were the University of Maine in Orono, the University of Maine at Augusta, the University of Maine at Fort Kent, the University of Southern Maine and Saint Joseph’s College in Standish.

A Utah native, Williams, 60, works on issues that include wilderness preservation, women’s health, ecology and humans’ relationship to the Earth.

She has written several books, including “Finding Beauty in a Broken World,” “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place,” and “Pieces of White Shell: A Journey to Navajoland.” She also is an essayist, poet and editor whose works have appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times. She was featured in Ken Burns’ 2009 public television series on national parks.

‘IT’S RIGHT HERE’

Williams spoke to students about the importance of collaboration and communion – about slowing down, working together, breathing and being in the present.

“It’s right here, right now, together,” she said.

She gave each of the 123 graduates a sprig of hand-picked sage from the desert and said the sprigs’ bases were wrapped in red thread to symbolize their passion. She carries sage with her wherever she goes as a source of strength and a reminder of where she belongs, she said.

“May you go forward with courage, commitment and calm,” Williams told the seniors. “We are with you. Congratulations.”

The packed auditorium erupted into cheers at the conclusion of her address, for which she also received a standing ovation.

Sitting in the front row was McKinley Bell of Ann Arbor, Michigan, who received a bachelor of science degree in captive wildlife care and education and wildlife management.

‘AMAZING’ EXPERIENCES

Bell, 22, was wearing a gold honor cord around her neck, signifying she was graduating with a cumulative grade point average of 3.33 or higher. Bell, a member of the college’s Loon Society, was nominated for the society based on excellent academic performance, contributions to the college and community and personal growth.

Bell called her Unity College experience “amazing.”

“I couldn’t be happier,” she said. “The professors are awesome, and the experiences we were able to have were just amazing and ones we couldn’t get anywhere else – really hands-on.”

Bell decided to study at Unity after seeing a brochure showing students holding bear cubs and tagging the mother bears, she said.

Last year, she did an internship in a wildlife rehabilitation sanctuary in Wisconsin.

Christopher Tucci, 22, of Monroe, Connecticut, was receiving a bachelor’s in parks resources, a degree he could use to be a park ranger interpreter, which is like a tour guide.

Last summer, he worked as an intern at Fort Stevenson State Park in Garrison, North Dakota, learning about being a ranger.

He enjoyed his time at Unity, where the courses were very focused, he said.

“I enjoyed the outdoor classes, very friendly staff, and we were on a first-name basis with about every single person,” he said.