On a Saturday in which the Truckee Meadows was shrouded in a dreary December inversion, the mood and the message inside Lawlor Events Center for the University's annual Winter Commencement Ceremonies was decidedly sunnier and filled with optimism.
The University celebrated two Commencement ceremonies, one in the morning and one in the early afternoon, during which 1,864 degrees were conferred.
James Hardesty, Nevada State Supreme Court Justice and a 1970 graduate of the University, was the featured speaker for both ceremonies.
Hardesty used examples from his own experience while a student at the University - in 1969-70 he was student body president - to emphasize the point that even during times of turmoil, the University has always found the common ground needed to understand all perspectives and points of view.
"Much like the students of my generation who were confronted with controversy, anger, and hate, many of you have encountered much the same," Hardesty said. "So the question for us then, and the question facing you now, is how to proceed in our dialogue and debate. Do we retreat into our social enclaves and give up or do we engage, work together, and improve our lives as a community, state, and country?
"What path will you take? I submit that you cannot communicate when you are not listening, and you cannot listen if you are unwilling to learn."
Hardesty used the days following the killings of four students at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970 as background to explain how the University responded to the prospect of more violence on college campuses.
"We decided it was best to focus our energy on the issues we could immediately influence, while still creating a campus dialogue on national issues," he said. "We realized that we didn't have our hands on the levers of power just yet, but what we did have was a platform to make our immediate world better while continuing to care about and engage the broader system."
Hardesty challenged the members of the Class of 2018 to do the same: "I hope you will, as I did, transition into the next phase of your life engaging in our democratic process. At the end of the day, it takes a tremendous amount of courage to debate and discuss ideas with someone with whom you fundamentally disagree. Don't take the easy way out and simply disengage. Stand up for your beliefs but always respect the right of another to offer an opposing point of view. The case for freedom, the case for the rule of law must be advanced with every generation. We trust you will accept that responsibility today, because doing so will assure your right to engage in the freedom of speech we as a country cherish."
University President Marc Johnson, in welcoming the graduates to the ceremony, praised the graduates' fortitude, which included during their four years side-stepping or detouring around numerous capital improvement projects.
"First, I have to congratulate all of you on your physical agility," he said. "You've not known a campus that has not been under construction in one form or another during your time here. When you arrived we were demolishing Getchell Library ... in its place came the Pennington Student Achievement Center ... and not long after we completed the E.L. Wiegand Fitness Center ... followed by Great Basin Hall ... and, very soon, the University Arts Building.
"You've pardoned our construction interruptions with good nature and only mild annoyance ... we sincerely thank you for four years of patience."
More seriously, Johnson told the graduates to "exceed the baseline of accomplishment that you've established here. Start by going out and doing what is right. Then, do good for others. Do what is right because that is the lifeblood of living in a democratic society.
"In the words of United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, ‘Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.'"
Although all of the graduates had very personal stories that spoke of dedication, sacrifice and hard work leading to Commencement, one of the more moving stories of one of the graduates was shared by Provost Kevin Carman.
The Provost related the story of Felipe Anguita Garreton, who more than four decades ago came to campus from his native Chile to study civil engineering and to be a member of Wolf Pack ski team. He was only a few credits short of attaining his degree when the political situation in Chile became unstable, returning to his homeland and never returning to the University. He subsequently became a highly successful mining engineer and entrepreneur in Chile.
"Fast-forward to the 21st century," Carman said. "Felipe was able to contact Derek Furukawa, our Assistant Vice Provost for Undergraduate Advising and Student Achievement. Derek and his staff then worked tirelessly with Felipe so that he could earn his degree. Felipe took a final few online courses and with the help of Derek and our advising staff, Felipe graduates this weekend with a degree in General Studies - some 45 years after he left our University."
Although Garreton could not make it from Chile to be a part of the ceremony on Saturday, Carman said his example - and the example of the devoted people who work at the University who ensure that all students find success, "(was) an integral part of the spirit of today's gathering. Felipe's story is a reminder that it's never too late to earn a college degree - particularly if you have a team of people who believe in you."