A breeze wafted through Washington-Grizzly Stadium as this year’s graduates made their way across the field to take their seats in front of the stage for the University of Montana’s 117th commencement ceremony.
As the procession of students filed in, one enterprising graduate took off at a run toward the south end of the field, removing his cap and spiking it into the turf of the end zone.
UM President Royce Engstrom stepped to the podium after the graduates had been seated, and beamed out at the mass of black cap and gowns in front of him, and the proud parents and families in the stands.
“I have a hard time thinking there’s a graduation ceremony anywhere in America that’s more beautiful than what we have here today,” he said.
Mariah Williams, vice president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana and newly appointed member of the state Board of Regents, took the stage to speak to her fellow graduates. As a business major, she offered few words about good investments. Instead of finances, she told the crowd about the investment professors, fellow students and UM staff have made in each graduate.
From teaching and mentoring to processing their graduation paperwork and keeping the sidewalks clear in the winter, UM had been dedicated to each student to help them succeed, Williams said.
“Wherever you are heading next in life, make all of those who have invested in you proud,” she said.
Engstrom also introduced Governor Steve Bullock, who delivered the commencement address. He told students the things he wishes he would have known at their age leaving school. He said it was important to be principled, and to understand the things that were important enough to them not to compromise on, and to take responsibility for their own lives and not be afraid to disappoint their parents.
“Make the decisions that are important to you,” Bullock said.
In his speech, the governor recounted his own life after graduation, including moving to Philadelphia for his first job out of school, and eventually quitting said job with no plans other than to, as he put it, “Go to Key West Florida, have a drink at Jimmy Buffett’s bar and figure out what I might want to do with my life.”
The governor also reminded students that the achievements they were being honored for on Saturday were because of the days, weeks and years of hard work they had put in.
“You haven’t received this degree, you’ve earned it,” he said.
Flanking the side of the main body of graduates was a small section of returning UM grads celebrating their 50th, 60th and 70th graduation anniversaries. The oldest returning graduate singled out was Emma Lommasson, class of 1933, who sat in one of the private boxes above the field as she watched the 81st anniversary celebration of her graduation.
As the main graduation ceremony came to a close, the graduates stood, and Engstrom conferred their degrees on the group. Engstrom also granted honorary doctorate degrees to Terry Payne and John Poe.
In all, UM awarded more than 3,600 degrees to the more than 2,900 graduates this year.
“With a college degree in hand, you will live longer, healthier lives, and earn more and contribute more to society,” Engstrom said.
Daniel Robison was one of six students receiving associate’s degrees in fire and rescue on Saturday. Each of the students in his program from the Helena College extension of UM graduated with honors or high honors, and in addition to their degrees, each was gifted with a fireman’s helmet before their ceremony. Robison wandered the campus with his parents who had made the trip from Utah to see their son complete his degree.
“It’s nice to have graduated, and know that we will continue on to do great things,” he said.
For other graduates, finishing school at UM was not just a stepping stone after high school, but the fulfillment of a lifelong goal.
“It feels good to be done, considering I first started college in 1997,” said Jeff McLain, 38.
He said he spent a year in college in New Hampshire after graduating high school, but at the time didn’t think it was the right fit for him. McLain went to a technical school to pursue a degree in photography, but decided to return to finish his bachelor’s degree in anthropology, and graduate with honors, after moving to Missoula several years ago.
Larissa Monckton said leaving school as a graduate was both an amazing feeling, and a bit scary.
On Saturday, Monckton had a difficult choice to make. As a double major graduating with degrees in both political science and communication studies, she had to pick which department ceremony to attend, as they had been scheduled concurrently. In the end, she decided to head back to Washington-Grizzly Stadium to go to the communications graduation.
“I love the department, and all of the professors I had there,” she said, twisting her golden high honors cord around one finger and readjusting the gold medal around her neck that signified her as a recipient of one of the school’s outstanding senior awards.
All across UM, graduates led their families around campus, stopping for pictures in front of Main Hall or the grizzly statue, celebrating both their own accomplishment, and the promise of the future. Jeff Roper, who earned his associate’s degree in information technology from Missoula College, said for the graduates today, it was the beginning of another adventure.
“It’s like a really good book, and we’re just starting the next chapter,” Roper said.