WATERVILLE — Despite the promise of a rainy forecast, the skies were clear for the 197th commencement at Colby College on Sunday, where speakers spoke of civility and engagement to the roughly 480 graduating seniors.

The ceremony, which lasted about two hours, featured U.S. Sen. Susan Collins as the commencement speaker. Collins, who received an honorary degree from the college in 2014, said this is an age of divisiveness, and challenged graduates to tackle the tough problems facing them. She said her great-aunt received a degree from Colby more than 100 years ago, but only after having to stop halfway through to work as a schoolteacher when she ran out of money to pay for college. She said it was unusual for a woman at that time to want a higher education so much to work so hard for it.

“She was a remarkable woman whose memory lives on,” Collins said.

Collins said political parties view each other as enemies in today’s hyperpartisan environment, and that prevents people from coming together to solve the major problems of the day. She said bringing people together is not always easy, but it is crucial in times when the “forces of polarization are strong and entrenched.” She said the more politically engaged a person is, the more likely he or she is to adopt the “apocalyptic view” of seeing the other side of the political aisle as the enemy.

“(That) leaves us vulnerable,” Collins said.

But Collins said the strength of a community is in the sum of its differences. She said in the 1930s, Colby College itself was struggling, and a relocation to Augusta was imminent. However, the people of Waterville at the time banded together and raised $100,000 to purchase the plot of land on Mayflower Hill where Colby sits.

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“What a wonderful example of the power of community,” Collins said.

Collins then challenged those in attendance to restore that sense of community to create a more enriching experience for everyone.

“My challenge to you graduates is to spread that message wherever the future takes you,” Collins said, before adding that she hoped the graduates would remain in Maine.

The student speaker at Sunday’s ceremony was Marnay Avant, originally from St. Louis.

Avant said she had to step out of her comfort zone to travel over 1,000 miles from Missouri to Maine, and even more so to go to a prestigious school as an African-American coming from a low-income background. But she said her experience at Colby was similar to that of many others. She said they all learned how to persevere.

“If you think back, we endured and survived a lot,” she said.

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Avant said they were entering a world where “justice is ubiquitous.” She urged her fellow graduates to commit to “liberatory consciousness” and take action for the greater good of all. She said things like racism and sexism did not create themselves, but were created by people.

In addition to the speakers, Colby recognized others with honorary degrees. Renowned artist Theaster Gates delivered the baccalaureate address May 26 and received an honorary degree. At commencement, Colby conferred honorary degrees on alumna Rebecca Corbett, assistant managing editor of The New York Times, and Harold Alfond Foundation’s executive chairman, Gregory W. Powell. Following the ceremonies, Corbett, who formerly worked for the Morning Sentinel, said the commencement was a “beautiful event,” and said she enjoys coming back to Waterville for graduations, as she is a former member of the Colby board of trustees. She said it was a “moving and inspiring” day, and praised Avant for promoting change for global tolerance. She said the messages of being able to listen to people, respect others, not act on bias and form a community were important to help “achieve worthy goals.”

Corbett said while she doesn’t live in Waterville anymore, she values the partnership between the college and the city. She recalled that when she did live here, Waterville was much more prosperous, but noted it has been hard hit in past decades. She said the collaboration between the college and the city was a “fantastic idea” and she was “rooting for it to succeed.”

“It’s great for the community and great for Colby,” she said.

Also on Sunday, about 475 students graduated from Bates College in Lewiston.

Four honorary degrees were conferred during the ceremony, to photojournalist Lynsey Addario; author and scholar Jill Lepore; Robert Ludwig, a Grammy Award-winning mastering engineer and music industry legend based in Portland; and Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama.

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Stevenson delivered a passionate commencement address, in which he tasked the graduates with four “very important” missions: seek proximity to people suffering; change the narratives under the issues; stay hopeful; and be willing to do uncomfortable and inconvenient things.

“Hope is your superpower,” he told the new graduates. “You have an obligation to use what you’ve learned to change things. That degree you’re going to receive doesn’t just speak to the past. It’s an invitation to look to the future.”

Liz Marquis of the Sun Journal contributed to this report.

 


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