FARMINGTON — Joan Benoit Samuelson told University of Maine at Farmington graduates Saturday how she broke ground as a female competitive runner, and urged them to persevere and work as hard through the challenges they would face in the future.

“You will have setbacks and challenges from which you will have to reboot and reroute,” Samuelson told the nearly 400 students, family and friends at commencement ceremonies on UMF campus.

Benoit Samuelson delivered the commencement address to a crowd that packed rows of chairs and spread out onto a grassy hillside outside the Olsen Student Center after marching down High Street under overcast skies. UMF awarded 392 bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 2015. Most graduates were from Maine and some grew up only miles from campus, but their numbers included students from a far away as Jamaica, the United Kingdom and Japan.

“You will not win all the time,” she added, pointing out the eight surgeries she had endured and noting that she “lost many more road races than I have won.”

Benoit Samuelson, a Maine native, in 1984, was the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal for the marathon. She won the Boston Marathon women’s race in 1979 while still a student at Bowdoin College, setting an American and course record. In 1983, she set a world record as she won the race.

There was no women’s cross-country team when she went to Bowdoin, so she joined the men’s team instead, Benoit Samuelson said, pointing out that students needed to make their own way in the world.

A committed environmentalist, she also commended the university’s moves towards sustainability and its “real world” curriculum, including its outdoor recreation business administration degree.

“A clean, sustainable Maine will attract jobs and provide a multitude of opportunities for UMF graduates here in Maine and beyond,” she said. “Maine desperately needs your knowledge, energy and fresh ideas.”

Chelsea Lear-Ward, from Levant, delivered the senior address. She left her classmates with some pieces of advice that she learned through her four years at UMF that highlighted avoiding negativity, not taking themselves too seriously, working hard and keeping in touch.

Lear-Ward choked up as she started reading her fifth piece of advice, “voice appreciation.”

“Tell your parents, friends, professors and loved ones how much they mean to you,” Lear-Ward said, after choking back tears. “If it wasn’t for them, you wouldn’t have shaped into the beautiful person you are today.”

She also urged graduates to pay it forward.

“Consider how privileged you are,” Lear-Ward said. “You are now a college graduate. You hold qualifications that others do not. You have a bed to sleep in at night and people in your life that love you. Not everyone is gifted with these treasures and at times it can be easy to forget how valuable they truly are. Make sure to spread random acts of kindness but avoid recognition. Good deeds are not for bragging rights, but instead to fill the soul.”

Before the ceremony, graduates lined up in the school gym, nervously awaiting their march to the podium.

Renae Ladd, from Strong, was one of the first in line near the entrance. Ladd, who was graduating with a bachelors of science in rehabilitation services, said she was getting ready to start a new job as a case manager with Maine Behavioral Health in Augusta.

“I’ve always had a passion to help people, and it’s a great field to get into if you want to feel like you are bettering someone’s life,” Ladd said.

While excited about starting her new position, Ladd said she will miss UMF, which has been her community for four years.

“I like that it’s small,” she said of the university. “You get to know everyone.”

Michaela Yeaton, a Farmington native, stood near the very end of the line. Yeaton grew up on her family’s dairy farm on Whittier Road, and said she decided to stay even though many of her friends left after graduating high school. She’s getting ready to start a job in health care in Augusta after graduating and the experience at UMF, especially with her professors, made staying near home worth it, she said.

“Everyone gave me heck for that,” she said. “But I’m glad I stayed.”

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire

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