UNITY— Celine Cousteau said she grew up with a lot of assumptions about who she was and what she should do with her life.

“People would say ‘Oh you must be an explorer; you must be a diver.’ I know now that no matter the expectation, I never lose track of who I am and what I should be doing,” she told a group of 146 graduating students at Unity College on Saturday.

Cousteau, 41, is the granddaughter of French explorer Jacques Cousteau, the inventor of the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, also known as SCUBA, and was the keynote speaker at the commencement in Tozier Gymnasium.

She told the students that they should be true to themselves and by doing so share the passion that they have for the environment and sustainable living. It is a message that Cousteau said she tries to live out daily through her work as a documentary filmmaker.

Through her production company, CauseCentric, Cousteau has focused on raising awareness about environmental issues, particularly the preservation of the world’s oceans; but more recently, she has turned her attention to the Amazon rain forest.

She is working on a feature-length documentary, called “Tribes on the Edge,” about some of the challenges facing tribal people in the Amazon, including hepatitis and malaria.

Cousteau told the graduates a story about an encounter with an indigenous leader in the Amazon, to whom she raised the question, “How do you live sustainably in the environment?” as part of her work for the film. The man looked at her as if he didn’t understand the question, she said.

“‘When I cut a tree I plant one, and when I go hunting I only kill the animals I need to feed my family,’ he told me. What a wonderful, beautiful way to get a slap in the face. There is no other way, and that is the lesson we are tasked to learn. I know all of you know that, and it’s up to us to go spread that message in a way people will understand,” Cousteau said.

Unity College is a liberal arts school with an emphasis on the environment and natural resources as part of its curriculum. Each student who graduated on Saturday was given a white pine sapling, a tradition that symbolizes their commitment to the natural world.

Cousteau’s message was echoed by student body president Samantha Longo, who reminded her classmates to look to nature for their understanding of the world, and college President Stephen Mulkey, who worked as an ecologist before taking over as president in 2011.

“We all came here to study different things, but we all have a deep passion and love for the environment,” Longo said. “We all came to Unity College to be part of the solution, so as you go out into the real world, remember to fight for what you believe in and spread environmental preservation.”

Mulkey told the students that their work in sustainability science makes them unique among 2014 graduates.

“In this era, in which climate change will affect almost every aspect of our lives, this way of problem solving is truly important, and it’s clear to me that it is your passion. You have learned that environmental issues are not black or white and are usually complex, and you’ve learned that the future of humanity depends on how we address these issues,” he said.

Outside the ceremony, Cousteau met with students and said that although she had never heard of Unity College before her visit, she was impressed with how many of them already had jobs and internships lined up.

Andrew Thatcher, 22, of Cheshire, Conn., said he will be heading to Montana this summer to begin working with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. A fuzzy green animal that he said was a “brain slug” sat on his graduation hat.

“It seems appropriate. Finals are over, and right now it feels like everything has just been sucked out of my brain, but I’m excited for the work I’ll be doing,” he said.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368 | [email protected]