Not all University of Maine at Farmington graduates received art degrees Saturday, said commencement speaker Richard Ford, but all should approach their degree as an art form, and not a “ticket to a profession.”

“Make something useful and beautiful out of it, just like an artist does,” said Ford, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist from East Boothbay.

Ford addressed a packed house of graduates, along with relatives and friends, at the graduation Saturday at the university’s recreation center. The university expects to award 456 diplomas this year to undergraduate and master’s degree candidates.

Ford said students might be overwhelmed with the amount of debt they are graduating with, and he quipped that it might feel as though they have paid for tuition since the school was first founded 150 years ago. However, he said they should remember they invested in something worthwhile.

“The only thing more expensive than a college degree is not getting a college degree,” he said.

Of the graduating class, President Kathryn Foster said most were traditional students, but she highlighted that 7 percent of the graduates were 26 or older and returned to school to get their degrees. She said a large portion of the school is made up of local students, and about 80 percent of this year’s graduates came from Maine hometowns.

The graduation was the 150th for UMF. Foster said that at the first graduation, 11 students were granted the first teaching degrees from what then was called the Normal School.

She said those students — 10 women and one man — went to class on the morning of graduation and were granted their degrees later that afternoon.

True to the school’s tradition of training educators, 140 students, about a third of the class, graduated with education degrees Saturday.

One of the education majors, class speaker and Student Vice President Sean Skillern, recalled how he grew into his love of teaching, from giving snowboarding lessons at 16 years old, to working with children in Guatemala while an undergraduate to learning to see himself as part of a larger community.

“I will remember walking out of this door today a walking, talking, world-saving teacher superhero. Talk about a degree,” he said.

He recalled his first day of school, adjusting to campus life and celebrating “freedom” from moving away from his home in New York.

“I remember meeting the loud, obnoxious neighbor of mine, thinking how could we ever be friends?” he said. “I remember waking up this morning, across the hall from my neighbor of four years, and wishing he’d be around to break the silence in years to come.”

Foster also highlighted 21 guests of honor in the front row for the 150th graduation: members of the 100th graduating class.

“It would be overexuberant to invite you to return 50 years hence,” said Foster, after having the class of 1964 stand for applause. “But we surely welcome you back, dear alumni, and thank you for showing today’s current class where they are expected to be in 50 years from now.”

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252kschroeder@centralmaine.com