WATERVILLE — Despite the promise of a rainy forecast, the skies were clear for the 197th commencement at Colby College on Sunday, where speakers spoke of civility and engagement to the roughly 480 graduating seniors.

The ceremony, which lasted about two hours, featured U.S. Sen. Susan Collins as the commencement speaker. Collins, who received an honorary degree from the college in 2014, said this is an age of divisiveness, and challenged each graduate to tackle the tough problems facing them. She said her great aunt received a degree from Colby more than 100 years ago, and had to stop midway through to work as a school teacher when she ran out of money to pay for college. She said it was unusual for a woman at that time to want a higher education so much to work so hard for it.

“She was a remarkable woman whose memory lives on,” Collins said.

While not diving too deep into politics, Collins said this is an age where political parties view each other as enemies in a hyper-partisan environment, which prevents people from coming together to solve the major problems of the day. She said bringing together people was not always easy, but it is crucial in an ages when the “forces of polarization are strong and entrenched.” She said the more politically engaged a person is, the more likely they are to adopt the “apocalyptic view” of seeing the other side of the political aisle as the enemy.

“(That) leaves us vulnerable,” Collins said.

But Collins said the strength of a community is in the sum of their differences. She said in the 1930s, Colby College itself was struggling, and a relocation to Augusta was imminent. However, the people of Waterville at the time banded together, and raised $100,000 to purchase the plot of land on Mayflower Hill where Colby sits.

“What a wonderful example of the power of community,” Collins said.

Collins then challenged those in attendance to restore that sense of community to make a more enriching experience for everyone.

“My challenge to you graduates is to spread that message wherever the future takes you,” Collins said, before quipping she hoped those graduates would remain in Maine.

In addition to Collins, the student speaker for the Sunday ceremony was Marnay Avant, originally from St. Louis, Missouri. Avant, beginning her speech, took a moment to remind all the graduates to thank their families who had helped get them to this point. She tearfully said she accepted her diploma on behalf of her mother,

“This is for my momma, wherever you are out there,” Avant said. “You taught me what strength, vulnerability, hard work and humility looks like. My degree my have my name on it, but I accept it on behalf of you.”

Avant, who received a standing ovation from her peers after her speech, said she had to step out of her comfort zone to travel over 1,000 miles from Missouri to Maine, and even more so to go to a prestigious school coming from a low-income background as an African American. But she said her experience at Colby was similar to many others. She said they all learned how to persevere.

“If you think back, we endured and survived a lot,” she said.

Avant said they were entering a world where “injustice is ubiquitous.” She urged her fellow graduates to commit to “liberatory consciousness” and take action for the greater good of all others. She said things like racism and sexism did not create themselves, but rather people did.

“Sometimes we may fall short, but I hope the possibility of liberation will make us get back up and keep fighting,” Avant said.

In addition to the speakers, Colby recognized others with honorary degrees. Renowned artist Theaster Gates delivered the baccalaureate address May 26 and received an honorary degree. At commencement, Colby conferred honorary degrees on alumna Rebecca Corbett, assistant managing editor of The New York Times, and Harold Alfond Foundation’s executive chairman, Gregory W. Powell. Following the ceremonies, Corbett, who formerly worked for the Morning Sentinel, said the commencement was a “beautiful event,” and said she enjoys coming back to Waterville for graduations, since she is a former member of the Colby Board of Trustees. She said it was a “moving and inspiring” day, and praised Avant for promoting change for global tolerance. She said the message of being able to listen to people, respect others, not act on bias and form a community were important messages to help “achieve worthy goals.”

Corbett said while she doesn’t live in Waterville anymore, she values the partnership between the college and the city. She recalled when she did live here, the town was much more prosperous, but has been hard hit in past decades. She said the relationship between the college and the town was a “fantastic idea” and she was “rooting for it to succeed.”

“It’s great for the community and great for Colby,” she said.

Nora Hill, one of the graduating seniors and from Boston, is a fifth-generation Colby student. She said when she was looking at colleges, she didn’t want to consider Colby simply because so many of her family members had gone. But she eventually came around, and on Sunday, graduated with the names of her family members who had graduated from Colby written on her academic cap.

“The sense pf community has been important,” she said of her time at Colby.

Adrienne Carmack, who received the Condon award for her civic engagement prior to receiving her diploma, said Avant’s speech was amazing, and was so proud she was speaking out. She also said it was great to have Corbett there. Carmack also said a few hundred graduates were wearing Planned Parenthood stickers or buttons as a way to tell Collins to “stand with the people.”

“This is what we believe in,” she said.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis

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