UNITY — Jimmy Chin lost sleep over what he was going to say to the class of 150 students graduating from Unity College Saturday morning at the Tozier Gymnasium.

Chin, a documentary filmmaker, photographer and climber known for skiing Mount Everest from the summit and climbing the first ascent of the Shark’s Fin on Meru, said that while it might seem surprising, he “spent quite a few nights sweating it out, wondering what the hell I was going to say to all of you.”

“It really is a great privilege to be able to speak to you, and I have not taken it likely,” he said.

Chin grew up in a small town in Minnesota as the child of Chinese immigrants who worked hard so he could attend a private college, he said. Growing up, he only knew of four career paths: doctor, lawyer, professor or investment banker.

“I was under a lot of pressure to pick a traditional career path. That path wasn’t me,” Chin said. “I told (my parents) I was going to move west and live out of my car and climb and ski full time.”

They were “horrified” by the idea, he said.

“They would say things like, ‘Of course we’re worried, there’s no word in Chinese for what you do,'” Chin said.

He struggled with guilt and doubt, and having to dumpster dive behind grocery stores to survive. But the work he was doing “fed something in me,” he said.

“People often assumed that I knew what I was doing,” he said. “Hell no. I had no idea what I was doing. I set out to find it by following my heart.”

Which also wasn’t as easy as it sounds, Chin said. He still asks himself every day what his intentions and his passion are, and why.

“Just know that there is always doubt. That is normal. That is where you have to take the risks,” he said.

Chin also encouraged the graduates to embrace failure.

The first time he attempted to climb Meru, he “failed spectacularly,” he said.

“Those failures gave me confidence to fail more and, in turn, to seek bigger goals and objectives in climbing,” he said.

If one approaches failure in this way, Chin said, in some ways they will never truly fail.

Lastly, Chin asked the students of “America’s environmental college” to practice compassion, empathy and respect, which “take down the fences” between opposing views to allow for “real dialogue.”

“We all lose if we politicize the protection of our environment,” he said. “Frankly put, if you can’t depoliticize the discussion and facilitate intelligent discussion about protecting the environment, we’re screwed.”

Chin also received an honorary doctorate in sustainability science from the college for “(inspiring) a generation to get outside, travel and enjoy our amazing world,” said President Melik Khoury.

Gunnar Norback, president of the Student Government Association, also called on students to put what they’d learned at the college to good use.

“We must set out into this world with our spirits high and our intentions just,” he said. “Our value as humans is not in achieving a high salary or a fancy title. It’s in doing good.”

When they chose Unity, they forfeited the “right to stand by,” Norback said. He asked everyone in the audience to take a moment and think if their 11-year-old self would see their current self as a role model. Use that answer as a guide every day, he said.

“We have learned the skills needed to help preserve the natural world,” he said. “We will do what’s right, even when right isn’t easy.”

Khoury, who has worked at the college for four years and watched the class of 2017 grow, spoke about the accelerating changes in the world.

“The world is changing like never before in the history of humanity,” he said. “Class of 2017: Adaption will be your challenge, and adaption will be your legacy.”

Unity College was born from change, he said, when town leaders decided they had to do something after Unity was literally left off a map one year.

Unity had lost its factories and a potential connection to Interstate 95, so a group of concerned townspeople founded Unity College as a solution.

“The college of Unity stands today, the town of Unity stands today,” he said.

The college has continued to change, establishing a gender balance on campus, supporting inclusion of the LGBTQ community, divesting from fossil fuels and establishing a direct mission of sustainability.

“But the pace of change is quickening, for higher education, for the environment and for the human race itself. We must learn more nimbly and with much more creativity,” Khoury said.

The students of Unity College, he said, will be “right at the heart of the change.”

“Whether the biggest challenge to come is feeding an aging population, providing clean water where there is none, or writing good policy in a time of bad characters … Whatever the challenge, I know you, the class of 2017, I know right where you’ll be,” he said. “You’ll be leading from the front, with just enough swagger. You’ll be right at the heart of the work, right at the heart.”

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

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Twitter: @madelinestamour