SALT LAKE CITY — As Trent Mortensen and Shane Russell joked together, waiting to enter the University of Utah's commencement ceremony Thursday, they agreed that they earned more than just diplomas during their time in college.
The pair met at Utah State University, where they each earned bachelor's and master's degrees, and continued their friendship as they pursued a second master's at the U.
"We've known each other for eight or nine years," said Russell, originally from Maryland, who received a Master of Science in finance. "We never would have passed financial modeling without being able to work together."
Mortensen, a Sandy resident who received a Master of Business Administration, assured current and future college students that anyone can get a higher education if they are committed to their goal.
"It's a matter of hanging on," he said. "You don't have to be a genius. You just have to keep going from day to day and get it done. Anyone can do it."
Getting to know professors and classmates, like Russell, is the key to succeeding in higher education, Mortensen added.
"School is just a smaller part of it. It's all the people you meet that make the difference, especially in business school," he said.
Russell agreed, calling the friendships he forged and the professionals he networked with "one of the most valuable takeaways" of his time in school, and he expects them to last a lifetime.
University President David W. Pershing told students what the world looked like when he prepared to enter college, as the Vietnam War broiled overseas. Pershing said his career plans and life path were altered, ultimately for good, when he drew a low draft number and entered the military as an officer in the public health division.
"I encourage you to look for the lessons in life and seize the opportunities when they come along," Pershing said, encouraging graduates to constantly watch for ways to help others and make a difference.
Keynote speaker Elizabeth Murray told students inspiring and heartbreaking experiences from her journey of living alone on the streets of the Bronx at age 15 to graduating from an Ivy League college, as recounted in her book “Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard.”
Murray's memoir landed on the New York Times Best Sellers list within a week of publication in September 2010, and her story had previously been told in a Lifetime television movie.
As a theme of adversity emerged in hundreds of letters sent to Murray, especially chronicling triumph and change, she realized that in every corner of life were people who were making extraordinary leaps in their ordinary lives.
"It seemed that no matter who I heard from, no matter what kind of paths they had walked in their lives, everyone had experienced adversity," Murray said, realizing that her unique story did not separate her from others but united her with people who had suffered in life.
Murray encouraged graduates to ask themselves, with every challenge they face, "How can I grow from this?" She instructed them to focus on blessings and gifts hidden in the struggle. They responded by thanking her with rousing cheers and a standing ovation.
Thursday's graduation ceremony included two milestones: It was the school's first commencement to be held at night, and it featured two student speakers after a tie between the top finalists could not be broken.
Graduating cum laude with degrees in biology and environmental sustainability studies, Lauryn Roth was not shy in admitting she made mistakes along the way.
Roth thanked her community for helping her weather those mistakes gracefully, explaining that her community included everyone from friends and family to a friendly bus driver.
"I know that my upcoming years will be intertwined with giving back to my community," she said. "I may not know what is next, but I owe it to my community to do something relevant in our corner of the world."
Roth will enter the U. School of Medicine in the fall.
Mauricio Caceres, an economics and mathematics student graduating magna cum laude, told his classmates his college education represented an opportunity for a better life.
Caceres was born in Peru and came to the United States for one year of high school before beginning his studies at the U. He will be continuing his education in graduate school at Columbia University.
"I think everyone should get their four minutes to say what their university has meant," he said about the chance to address his classmates. "Most of you don't know me, and most of you won't after today. It's not my words that should matter. It's yours."
Caceres urged fellow graduates to ponder on what words and memories meant most to them from their college careers. His, he explained, were "thank you."
A group of 8,007 graduates from 83 countries and all 50 states walked away with 8,469 degrees, many students earning more than one. The school awarded 5,432 bachelor’s degrees, 2,126 master’s degrees and 632 doctorates.
The youngest undergraduate was 18, and the oldest was 72.
Honorary degrees were given to Thomas D. Rees, doctor of science; Apa Sherpa, doctor of humane letters; and Andrea Brantzeg Thomas, doctor of humanities.
Graduates will walk in 13 individual convocations with their colleges throughout the day Friday.
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