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The University of Montana's 106th commencement ceremony Saturday began the same way they likely did when the Missoula campus celebrated its very first one.

As the black-robed gathering of some 1,200 students filed into Dahlberg Arena, grandparents, parents, siblings and friends applauded their achievements to the accompaniment of rowdy hollers and boisterous yipping.

Laughter and joy filled the air, creating such a buoyant, contagious atmosphere, many people scrambled to find tissues.

"It's a thrill - this is an awesome day," said Renn Weida, a graduate of the College of Technology, who marched from the Oval to the arena escorted by her 4-year-old son, Ezra.

If all goes according to plan, Weida said she'll have more time to share with Ezra's twin sister, her 1-year-old daughter and husband before finding work as a surgical technician in Missoula.

Christina Kracher jingled her way through the procession in a brilliant turquoise ceremonial dress adorned with brass ornaments to honor her Little Shell and Turtle Mountain tribal ancestors.

"To me this jingle dress helps me explain who I am," said the 21-year-old environmental studies major. "I am dressed this way because this is an important stepping stone in my life."

From across Montana, more than 15 of her family members came to celebrate with her.

"This is a big day for me," the Helena resident said. "I'm so nervous, but proud. I've worked really hard for this day."

And if all goes according to plan, Kracher said, she'll work awhile at the job she has lined up with the Bureau of Land Management in Idaho, and then she'll think about applying to law school.

Political science major Katie Schar of Chicago said she's looking for a little relaxation after graduation. From the time she was 15, she has been working in restaurants to pay for college.

Now as her college career comes to a close, the 23-year-old said she feels she's deserved some rest before she moves to her next commitment - a two-month volunteer job in Ghana with a program called Cultural Solutions.

Earl Old Person, traditional chief of the Blackfeet Nation, opened the commencement ceremony with a blessing he spoke first in the Blackfeet language and then translated into English.

Alumni Association Director William Johnston welcomed the graduates from the class of 1953, 1943 and the sole representative of the class of 1933, Emma B. Lommasson, for whom the building formerly known as the Lodge is now called.

UM President George Dennison bestowed four honorary doctorate degrees. Semitool Inc. founder Raymond Thompson of Kalispell and Montana investment firm founder Ian Davidson of Great Falls received honorary degrees in business administration; Nancy Davidson, a civic and university leader from Great Falls, received a honorary degree in humane letters; and Margie Thompson, a Butte business owner and former member of the Montana Board of Regents, received an honorary degree in education.

In his commencement speech, UM history professor Paul Lauren urged the graduates to let their conscience be their guide and to give back to their communities.

"I encourage you to stand for principle instead of political expediency," he said. "You will be called upon to make decisions to decide what you will do and not do, what you will support and what you will not support.

"When this happens, I would encourage you to draw on your conscience and what you have learned here for guidance," he said. "From my own professional work in international relations when the stakes are very high … my experience is that victories gained for reasons of political expediency rarely can be sustained. They lose in the end because there is no substance or principle."

With being university graduates, Lauren said, comes the privilege and responsibility of being in an elite group.

"You have knowledge and skill that most others in the world can never hope to obtain," he said. "I would encourage you to give of yourself and your resources. Care for those who hunger, those who are sick, who are without homes, those who are without education and those whose human rights are abused either close to home or in some distant land.

"You will be better for it - and so will the world."

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