University of Montana President Sheila Stearns stepped to the podium Saturday morning during the school's 120th graduation ceremony and told the black-robed students in front of her that 49 years ago, she was in the same position they are.

“I loved the university so much I refused to leave,” Stearns said, adding that she immediately enrolled in a masters' program after finishing her undergraduate's degree, and eventually came back again in December to lead UM.

“I am here and so proud and honored to be serving as your first woman president.”

Stearns said she remembered her own graduation in 1968 as a time of tumult and disarray in the country. That April, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, followed by the killing of U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy two months later.

“Our democracy goes through tough cycles of challenging times,” Stearns said, telling the graduates that the type of leadership and perspective they could provide would help people make it through such difficult periods.

Jennifer Isern, who works in financial development with the World Bank Group, delivered the commencement address. Isern, a 1989 graduate of UM — where she was president of the student government and earned a Truman Scholarship — gave a speech that was less rousing oratory than grounded guidance from someone whose time at the school launched her on a career that has spanned the globe.

“The university changed my life and I’m sure it has for you as well,” she said.

Isern offered the new graduates three pieces of advice as they started the next step in their lives: Start saving money early, always keep learning and always be grateful.

“Life really is all about attitude,” she said.

Noting that students from 46 countries were graduating at UM this year, Isern also told the crowd that cooperation is key to addressing the problems of the world.

“It’s not us versus them, no matter who you imagine is them,” she said.

Dan Murphy, who graduated with a master's in mathematics, was among the 3,088 students who earned a degree at UM this year.

“I was already living in town and had always wanted to go back to school and this was just the right fit for me,” he said.

Corvallis, Oregon, native Jaden Emminger, who received his degree in psychology, said he chose the school because it was where his grandparents went. He said his plan is to take a year off before starting to look at doctorate programs around the country, and that he will remember UM for all of the opportunities, both academic and social.

“I was part of the fencing and hurling teams, something I didn’t know anything about before coming here,” Emminger said.

In addition to an invocation by the Rev. Jeff Fleming, Chief Earl Old Person sang the Blackfeet flag song to honor the graduates, adding that he dedicated it to former UM President George Dennison, who died in January.

Dennison was granted a posthumous honorary doctorate of humane letters during the ceremony, which Stearns presented to his wife Jane and his sons Rick and Rob. Stearns said her friendship with Dennison went back two decades, including being the chair for his inauguration ceremony. The theme he chose for that event has stayed with her since.

“The University of Montana: Community, diversity and excellence."