UNITY — With applause from parents, fellow students and professors thundering, incoming Unity College freshmen left their families’ side Saturday afternoon and took their seats in a block of chairs in front of a stage in the Tozier Gymnasium.

The ceremony, a centerpiece of the college’s annual convocation, symbolizes the first steps the young students are taking in their new lives, said Melik Khoury, college vice president and liaison on the board of directors, speaking to the crowd. Khoury recently was named interim college president, replacing outgoing president Stephen Mulkey, who is leaving at the end of the year.

The afternoon convocation was part of a weekend orientation for new freshmen. This year, Unity is welcoming its largest freshman class ever, 247 students from two continents and states as far away as Hawaii.

Since its founding 50 years ago, Unity has grown from an enrollment of 30 students to 647 this year, the largest student body ever.

Despite its growth, the college still has an intimate, community feel. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows each other on a first-name basis, and that’s a big draw for a lot of students, said John Zavodny, the dean of academic services.

“It’s a distinct place. It doesn’t feel like other colleges,” Zavodny said. “You can tell there is a difference when you step on campus.”

Unity’s focus on environmental and natural studies also brings students in, Zavodny said. Most incoming freshmen come to Unity because they know what program they want to get into and have an easier time figuring out where they fit in on campus, he said.

“We have a very precise mission,” Zavodny said.

The college offers 16 environmentally focused majors, including adventure therapy, biology and environmental writing and journalism.

The college’s growth probably is linked to broader environmental concerns, such as climate change, and freshmen may be drawn by Unity’s emphasis on sustainability.

“They want to live lives of service” to the environment, society and the animal world, Zavodny said of the incoming freshmen.

Sitting in the bleachers before the service, Breanna Fleet, from Warren, Connecticut, said Unity was the only college she looked at.

“It was the one that fit,” Fleet said. “I didn’t want to go to a big-city college.”

Fleet plans to study for a bachelor of science degree in captive wildlife care and education. She wants to focus on rehabilitating wild animals that have been hurt and injured. Moving to rural central Maine isn’t intimidating, Fleet said. Unity and the surrounding countryside isn’t much different from the community she grew up in.

“This is what I’m used to,” she said, laughing.

Logan Connor, another incoming freshman, sat next to Fleet on the bleachers in the back of the gymnasium. Connor is from Torrington, Connecticut, and he and Fleet went to high school together.

“I like the size. Everybody is friendly,” Connor said.

He originally intended to go to the University of Connecticut, Connor said. In fact, Unity was the last school he visited, but that visit sold him.

“The minute I got here, I loved it,” Connor said. He intends to study animal biology, with a focus on waterfowl.

Although members of the incoming class come from 28 states and one student is from Italy, the class is heavily stacked with New England students, with Maine coming in first with 74 freshmen, 52 from Massachusetts and 32 from Connecticut.

According to the college, its popularity has grown substantially in recent years. In 2012, only 477 freshmen applied to the school. This year, 1,133 prospective students applied, Unity said in a news release Friday.

Gary Zane, the dean of student affairs, said an increasing awareness of environmental issues and desire by students to be good stewards of the Earth help explain Unity’s increasing popularity.

“The Unity College mission has always been relevant, but it is becoming more and more relevant,” Zane said.

“They want to be agents of change,” he said, reviewing the packed gymnasium.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: PeteL_McGuire

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