FARMINGTON — When Judy Potter Smith graduated in 1967 from the University of Maine at Farmington, then known as Farmington State Teacher’s College, with a degree in education, she entered a world of great uncertainty. It was the 12th year of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and race riots soon engulfed urban centers around the country. Americans mourned the loss of the Apollo 1 astronauts in a cabin fire while the Supreme Court struck down laws barring interracial marriage.

Farmington itself was a smaller place, Smith recalled, and there were many fewer career options for women. UMF offered only teaching degrees and would not become part of the University of Maine system until the following year. So as she watched her grandson, Lucas Small, graduate from UMF on Saturday, 50 years since her own commencement, Smith marveled at how much had changed.

It was a theme that echoed throughout UMF’s graduation ceremony where 398 undergraduate and graduate students hailing from across Maine, the country and the globe accepted degrees in subjects ranging from early childhood education to environmental policy and planning. On a warm and welcome spring day, graduates and faculty celebrated and reflected on the legacy and future of Maine’s oldest public university.

Louis D. Sell, an adjunct professor at UMF with 28 years of experience in the U.S. Foreign Service, spoke to the graduates and their guests about the spasms of sometimes violent change he had witnessed in his time at the State Department. Serving under six U.S. presidents starting in 1971 with Richard Nixon, Sell described how he had watched from the front lines as two countries, the USSR and Yugoslavia, suddenly ceased to exist.

He recalled traveling to Bosnia in the mid-1990s, during that country’s bloody war. As he entered Sarajevo, the besieged Bosnian capital, Sell remembered seeing the words “welcome to hell,” sprayed in red paint on a crumbling wall. But just a few months later, the international community came together for the Dayton peace conference, bringing an end to the conflict.

“People — and nations — can change things for the better acting either individually or as part of a group,” Sell said. “Sometimes determined action can accomplish change even when things look especially grim.”

When he returned to the region in 2003, Sell helped found the American University of Kosovo in an effort to provide hope and pathways to employment for those affected by the war. Two years later, the university hosted its first graduation and Sell said he did not realize its importance until an elderly relative of one of the graduates approached him. The man said he had seen American graduations on television with the caps and gowns and pomp but he had never expected such a celebration for the young people of Kosovo. “Thank you for bringing it to our country,” he told Sell.

With such lessons in mind, Sell reflected on more current political tensions. It’s no secret, Sell said, that U.S. democracy is experiencing great difficulty, even crisis — but he urged UMF’s graduates to keep in mind the critical thinking skills and values they had learned in their liberal arts education.

“Vigorous debate is at the heart of democracy but democratic debate must also include respect for the views of the other side,” Sell said. “It is easy to be tolerant of views you share; the real test for tolerance comes with views you disagree with, perhaps even profoundly.”

In addition to speaking, Sell received an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. He was joined by Chris Coyne, a South Portland native and tech entrepreneur who founded the wildly popular Spark Notes study guide while majoring in math at Harvard University. Coyne went on to found the quintessential online dating site OKCupid, which was later acquired by Match.com. Today Coyne is working on Keybase, an open source encryption application that offers users end to end encryption for emails, chats and file sharing.

Graduating senior Zack Peercy gave the student address. Peercy graduated Saturday with a bachelors of fine arts in creative writing and a bachelors of arts in theatre: writing and performance. After graduation, Peercy plans to move to Chicago to work with the renowned The Second City comedy troupe. In his speech, Peercy noted that Farmington was a “weird” place with its quirky scultures and annual parade in honor of Chester Greenwood, a Farmington native and the inventor of ear muffs.

“Our time here has been absurd and we have embraced it,” Peercy said before leaving his classmates with some final words of wisdom from the inimitable Dr. Seuss.

“One fish, two fish,” Peercy intoned. “Red fish, blue fish.”

Kate McCormick — 861-9218

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Twitter: @KateRMcCormick

 

This article was updated at 6:45 p.m. May 15, 2017, to correct a photo caption. The caption misidentified Mark R. Gardner, a University of Maine System trustee, as Louis Sell.