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With smiles a mile wide, some 2,800 students became University of Montana graduates Saturday.

Kaitlin Kroll of Helena said she initially didn’t think the graduation ceremony in the Adams Center was going to be a big deal, but her attitude changed as she was surrounded by her fellow classmates.

“I’m super excited; I wasn’t at first, but now that I’m here, let’s do this,” said Kroll, who earned a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and begins grad school in July. “I want to become an athletic trainer.”

The program kicked off with a prayer by the Rev. Jeff Fleming of Missoula, an honor song sung by Blackfeet Chief Earl Old Person for all of the graduates, and a tip of the mortar boards to graduates from the anniversary years of 1948, 1958, and 1968. Sheila Sterns, from the class of ’68 and the 18th president of UM, also was given an honorary doctorate.

Eric Sprunk, the chief operating office for Nike — as well as a Hellgate High School and 1986 University of Montana graduate — was the commencement speaker and urged the students to marry humanity with technology as they travel on their “incredible” journeys.

Sprunk believes the world is in the midst of the fourth Industrial Age, with rapid technological improvements and productivity that are making significant advances in the standard of living for people throughout the world.

“It’s an amazing time to be graduating from college,” Sprunk said. “I think this is one of the most dynamic, exciting and innovative times in our history.”

However, he added that the world and planet are “pretty messed up” and the graduates will have to do something about that. He noted that the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow, and 70 million people are displaced from their homes due to war, ethnicity or religion.

The graduates can help by being life-long learners, by being willing to take chances and by learning from their mistakes. Sprunk said he had an accounting degree and initially wanted to be a corporate tax attorney, but his willingness to take chances — like moving to Portland with a week-old infant, and later moving to Europe for five years with his wife and their three young children — helped propel him to the top of Nike.

“They were difficult choices, but in hindsight they turned out pretty well,” Sprunk said.

He also readily acknowledged making mistakes, including jumping into a pool at a friend’s 50th birthday party, but missing “the wet part of the pool.”

“Jumping was a decision I regretted immediately, even when I was in the air,” Sprunk said, laughing. “But I learned my wife is a saint and a good nurse, and I no longer jump off of things. At Nike, we get rewards for taking risks, but if you keep making mistakes you will lose your employment.”

He noted that at a friend’s recent funeral, no one spoke of the man’s many accomplishments. Instead, they talked about his kindness, and the good deeds he did for others. Sprunk said he tries to emulate that, and be the type of person who people enjoy greeting each morning at work.

Sprunk added that the graduates need to know what they don’t know, and create an environment in which they’re a good coach who can help others thrive.

And he told them to “have a bias for action.”

“Don’t share the things you are 'going to do' on social media,” Sprunk said. “Do them. Find your voice. Fight for people who don’t have one. Stick up for people and always stand up for yourself.”

High in the stands, Doug Sexe and Tom Robitaille, both of Great Falls, discussed how the positive attitudes and hard work by the graduates earning their degrees gives both of them faith in the future.

“It sort of raises your enthusiasm for life,” Robitaille said. “So much of the news today is negative and bad. This is absolutely positive and is something everybody should be a part of. Look at all the kids and the years of work they put in. This is the culmination of those times.”

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