For the past four years, Colorado College has been like a toolbox for Rafael Alonso-Arenas. The Mexico City native now has the final instrument in hand to help him build his future.
"This diploma tells me I'm equipped with all the tools to succeed," he said. "I'm ready."
Alonso-Arenas, the first in his family to complete college, was one of 508 whose status changed from "student" to "graduate" on Monday during CC's 131st commencement ceremony.
In the chill of the spring morning, balloons and bouquets bobbed in the crowd gathered on the campus' Armstrong Quad.
In her second commencement address as CC President, Jill Tiefenthaler commended the class of 2013 for its community service, environmental proclivity, spirit of collaboration and tolerance of differing viewpoints.
Among its accomplishments, Tiefenthaler said, the senior class helped with a passive solar greenhouse project, came to the debate table regarding CC's endowment investment practices, formed two new support groups for mental health issues, created a monthly bipartisan publication and contributed to the college being named to President Obama's 2013 Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll.
Tiefenthaler urged the young men and women to continue on the same leadership path as they enter the professional world.
"Your CC education helped you develop qualities of focus, resilience, grit, creativity, independence and passion," she said. "Over and over again I've heard 'I'm sad to leave but I'm ready to go.' We hope our seniors will take this outlook with them."
Keynote speaker Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund and the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, challenged students to adopt old-fashioned advice as they "graduate into an ethically polluted nation."
"The standard for success has become personal greed rather than common good," she said. "We have lost our sense of what is important as a people. We need to change course."
Seniors should remember "there is no free lunch in life," she said. "Don't feel entitled to anything you don't sweat and struggle for. Your CC degree may get you in the door, but it won't get you to the top of the career ladder and keep you there."
And this wise litany: "Never work just for money; it won't save your soul or help you sleep at night. Don't confuse wealth or fame with character. Don't condone or tolerate moral corruption. Don't be afraid of taking risks and being criticized - it doesn't matter how many times you fail but how many times you get up."
Amid the blare of air horns, the clanking of cowbells and the festivity of confetti, the graduates were charged with going forth and commencing. Nerves gave way to excitement, and a sea of cameras turned the graduates into models, heady with the possibilities that lie ahead.
"The doors are open. This place helped me find my way. I've been trained to do anything faster and better - it's been the best educational experience I could have asked for," said David Swift, who is set to research the West Nile virus in Brazil.
With a philosophy degree in hand, Charis Whitnah of Washington D.C., said the class of 2013 bonded through difficult and joyous times and came through it with "a love for one another."
"We have a strong connection and will stay connected," said Whitnah, who will work for Teach for America in Denver as an elementary school special educator.
Ben Moynihan of Boston, Mass., said his son, Jaam, who majored in Spanish, seems more confident, thanks to his years at CC.
"It's a real confidence based on effort, experience and learning," he said, "and it's a wonderful thing to witness. I'm thrilled and proud, and looking forward with anticipation on how he decides to lead his life."