UNITY — For Unity College’s class of 2016, the real work begins now as students leave the classroom to tackle issues of sustainability amid a changing environment that includes the threat of climate change.

That was the message Saturday from guest speakers, students and school officials who spoke at the college’s 47th commencement ceremony at Tozier Auditorium.

“The world is changing fast,” said Rue Mapp, commencement speaker and founder of Outdoor Afro, a grass-roots organization aimed at connecting African-Americans with leadership opportunities and experiences in nature. “We have to take our knowledge and apply it in entrepreneurial ways and weave together networks and technologies to have an impact.”

That’s exactly what Mapp, who grew up in Oakland, California, but also spent time on her family’s ranch outside the city, did after she graduated in 2009 as a nontraditional student with a bachelor’s degree in art history from the University of California at Berkley.

Mapp told the 128 graduates, their families and friends gathered on Saturday the story of a college mentor who posed the question to her, “What would you do with your life if time and money were not a barrier?”

“I opened my mouth and my life fell out,” Mapp said. “I said, ‘Oh, I’d probably start a website to help African-Americans re-connect with the outdoors.'”

Within two weeks she had created the blog Outdoor Afro, which has since grown into a national nonprofit organization. “Today we’re connecting tens of thousands of people back to nature,” she said as the audience exploded with applause.

When the city of Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in violent protests and riots in 2014 after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an African-American youth shot by a white police officer, Mapp used Outdoor Afro to organize “healing hikes.”

“There was total unrest. We were hearing about it all over,” Mapp said. “I felt like there needed to be something for people to tap into, and as I was walking from my office to my car, the answer came to me. I said, ‘Rue, you do nature. That’s your lane.'”

The hikes are just one example of the type of work the organization does to connect African-Americans with the environment and a reminder of why environmental stewardship is important, she said.

“As we came out of that redwood bowl that just absorbed all of our tensions, our questions and our concerns, we came out with new resolve that we shared about what we might do different in our homes, in our workplaces and in our communities,” Mapp said. “It was another reminder to me that nature is the ultimate equalizer and is a healer.”

Unity College, which has branded itself as America’s environmental college, is a small liberal arts school with an emphasis on sustainability science and conservation. Graduates at Saturday’s ceremony earned degrees in fields including conservation law enforcement, adventure therapy, sustainable agriculture, wildlife biology and marine biology. According to Unity College President Melik Peter Khoury, they will go on to work for the National Park Service, the Maine Warden Service and the Animal Kingdom Theme Park at Walt Disney World Resort. Others will continue their education in biology and environmental law programs or become entrepreneurs with an interest in sustainability.

“It’s not hyperbole to say that Unity College graduates are preparing to do the most important work of this environmental age,” Khoury said in his remarks to the audience. “I know that sounds rather grand, but commencement is a time to believe in our best future. All of you here today know our planet is a limited resource and we must steward it.”

John Karyczak, president of the Student Government Association and a graduate of the class of 2016, thanked his family and friends in his address and asked his classmates to take with them the values of sustainability they cultivated as undergraduates.

“College has been the perfect time for us to reflect on who we are and what values are closest to our hearts,” said Karyczak, who is from Buffalo, New York. “After we graduate, these values become part of everything we do, every organization we work for and every relationship we have. I know that for each of the graduates here, our lives will serve as examples for the rest of the world in understanding how to best live the values of sustainability.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

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Twitter: @rachel_ohm