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“Don’t be afraid to take a risk, don’t be afraid of failure, be bold,” Robert Redford told graduates at Colby College’s 194th Commencement May 24. Redford spoke to graduates and to a crowd that numbered in the thousands about the value of great teachers, about challenges that graduates face as they leave Mayflower Hill, and about the need for collaboration and connection—not just among people, but between people and the environment.
In the open air of the academic quad, 483 degrees were awarded, including one to Peter Cronkite, who died in April and earned distinction in his classical civilization major. The ceremony mixed high-spirited celebration and somber moments, pageantry and personal embrace, humor and the weight of responsibility graduates bear as they “follow in the footsteps of alumni who have used their Colby education to live lives of impact and purpose,” in the words of President David A. Greene, who presented diplomas and congratulated each graduate.
Greene introduced Redford, praising his commitments to the environment, to the arts, to helping others succeed, but especially his dedication to free expression, adding, “It’s the values that Colby and Robert Redford share that make this occasion so auspicious.”
“You’re stepping into a world that’s, well, pretty rough. It’s pretty chaotic, pretty divisive,” Redford told graduates. “You’ve got climate change, you’ve got debt, you’ve got wars, you’ve got political paralysis. It’s kind of a grim story. But the story, I think, can be retold, and I really believe that you’re the ones to do it.”
He remained upbeat, continuing “This school has provided you with the tools and it’s provided you with the history … to go out in the world and make a difference.”
Part of what’s missing today, he said, is collaboration. He talked about reviewing film of the Watergate hearings, the subject of his movie All the President’s Men. Recently seeing archival footage of Republicans and Democrats together at a Congressional hearing, “What really stunned me was how this panel was working together to get to the truth. I thought, ‘Wow!’” he said. “It can be revived. Again, I’m putting it in your hands—sorry about that.”
Redford received an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from Colby and was one of five honorary degree recipients. Deborah Bial, founder of the Posse Foundation, which has sent more than 6,000 urban students to 52 selective colleges and universities including Colby, received an honorary doctor of education degree and spoke at Colby’s baccalaureate May 23; Andrew Davis ’85, an arts, education, and environmental philanthropist, received an honorary doctor of laws; Roger Ferguson Jr., former vice chair of the Federal Reserve and current president and CEO of TIAA-CREF, received an honorary doctor of laws; and Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, filmmaker, and immigration-reform activist, received an honorary doctor of letters.
Student-elected class speaker Margaret Bower from Cumberland, Maine, talked about her recent realization that, at graduation, she doesn’t really know anything. “A lot of adults have been saying to me lately, ‘Millennials: They just go out in the world and they don’t know anything. They’re all texting and FaceTiming and taking screenshots of their bitcoins.’” she said. “I just want to say to all those Generation Xers: ‘Yeah, we don’t know anything. And it’s awesome!’”
Calling her experience exhilarating, exhausting, informative, and such a gift, Bower said, “Colby has given us as many tools as it can, but really it’s given us the tools to figure out how to learn all the stuff they can’t teach us here. Colby has prepared us to be brave facing these things we don’t know. … That’s pretty cool, and I’m very grateful for that.”
The class was led in the procession by Megan Michie of Rhinebeck, N.Y., who, with the highest grade point average, was class marshal. A double major in classics and in biology/cell and molecular biochemistry and a varsity softball and volleyball player, Michie addressed the baccalaureate ceremony Saturday. During her four years at Colby she conducted organic chemistry research, was a student representative to the trustees’ Athletics Subcommittee, won academic awards in both majors, and was named to Phi Beta Kappa. She is headed for a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health to conduct organic chemistry research in a National Cancer Institute lab run by Martin Schnermann, a 2002 Colby grad.
Justin Deckert from Mansfield, Mass., won the Condon Medal for constructive citizenship, the only award presented at commencement. Deckert was president of the Student Government Association, served as a student representative on the trustee’s Academic Affairs Committee, and majored in government.
More is online at colby.edu/commencement.
Founded in 1813, Colby is one of America’s most selective colleges. Serving only undergraduates, Colby offers a rigorous academic program rooted in deep exploration of ideas and close interaction with world-class faculty scholars. Students pursue intellectual passions, choosing among 57 majors or developing their own. Independent and collaborative research, study abroad, and internships offer robust opportunities to prepare students for postgraduate success. Colby is home to a community of 1,850 dedicated and diverse students from around the globe. Its Maine location provides easy access to world-class research institutions and civic engagement experiences.