LEWISTON — Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, told members of the incoming class at Bates College on Tuesday that they need to “become the missionaries of truth” who can help get the country “off the road to fascism.”

“You are the ones who are going to have to clean up this mess,” Huerta said during the college’s convocation ceremony on the historic quad, the kickoff to the academic year.

Bates College President Clayton Spencer, right, listens to Dolores C. Huerta as she addresses the crowd gathered in the school’s historic quad during Tuesday’s Opening Convocation at the Lewiston college. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Her speech clearly resonated with students belonging to the most diverse class in the college’s history, with 28 percent of its 501 students categorized as “students of color” and 54 percent women.

College President Clayton Spencer, who called Huerta a living legend, said the students are embarking on “an endless stream of beginnings” as they plunge into their college years.

She urged them to claim their education and to “say yes” to opportunities that will help them define themselves for life. Bates, she said, is a place to find “meaning and purpose.”

Bates College President Clayton Spencer, left, applauds Dolores C. Huerta, middle, before Huerta received an honorary degree from Michael P. Murray, right, during Tuesday’s Opening Convocation at the Lewiston college. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Huerta, 89, said one of the things students should say yes to is to “become an activist.”

She urged them to join marches, email officials and someday run for office to counter the ignorance and apathy that has allowed racism, sexism and other woes to flourish in the United States.

Huerta told students that racism doesn’t make sense because “we only have one human race,” which originated long ago in Africa before spreading around the globe.

“We are all Africans of different shades and colors,” Huerta said. The Presidential Medal of Freedom winner said students should tell neo-Nazis and white supremacists to “get over it – you’re Africans.”

Senior Ryan Lizanecz, student body president, said he loved every second of her address.

“I was blown away,” he said. “We were really pumped to see her here.”

In his own speech, Lizanecz urged newcomers at Bates to become active members of their new community.

“Remember Lewiston, as well as Maine, is your home now,” the Portland native said. Lizanecz said the connections students make will prove among their most rewarding experiences in college.

Students said they were happy to be on campus.

“I was really drawn in by how community-oriented Bates is,” said Victoria Scott, a first-year student from Martha’s Vineyard. “It was kind of a perfect fit for me.”

For professors, too, the start of a new year offers a new beginning.

Joseph Hall, a history professor, pointed to the stacks on his office desk as evidence of “all sorts of pieces I’m really excited about,” from early American history journal articles to stacks of information about Native Americans.

The new class is more global than any of its predecessors.

Bates College students listen to President Clayton Spencer welcome them during Tuesday’s Opening Convocation in the historic quad of the Lewiston college. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Though 10 percent of its members hail from Maine – about the same as usual – Bates has students entering from places as far-flung as Nicaragua and Niger. Half attended public school, half graduated from private secondary schools.

Like Lizanecz, 12 percent of the class are the first in their families to attend college. Two of five students are receiving financial aid, with the average grant totaling more than $47,000 a year.

Bates is one of dozens of elite colleges that promises to provide enough aid to allow all of its students to graduate with comparatively little debt, often proving to be more affordable than public universities despite its anticipated price tag of $73,538 this year for tuition, fees, boarding and expected expenses.

Huerta delivered the incoming students their first history lesson.

She said that while wealthy white people created a government, brown people built much of it, from the enslaved individuals who erected the White House to the Chinese who laid railroad tracks across the continent.

Huerta said the country can do better.

“The wonderful thing about a democracy is that we can change things,” she said. But, she warned, “nothing is going to change unless you decide to change it.”

Huerta finished her address with a call and response that President Barack Obama made famous in his 2008 campaign: “Yes, we can.”

Obama, who awarded her the nation’s highest civilian honor in 2012, once said she was “very gracious” about his theft of her rallying phrase.

Huerta became a well-known figure leading a successful grape boycott in the 1960s to help farm workers unionize, a major victory for unions and for Hispanics, who made up the vast majority of the field hands struggling for higher wages and better conditions.

Huerta left the stage to students and professors following her lead, chanting together in both English and Spanish: “Si, se puede. Yes, we can.”

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