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Groton — Glenn Gordinier had three pieces of advice for the graduates of the University of Connecticut at Avery Point on Friday: Rely on grit to succeed, hold onto joy or find it if you've lost it, and live an authentic life.
"Without that, the grit means nothing. The joy means little," said Gordinier, co-director of the Munson Institute and visiting professor of history.
The 79 students received their diplomas in the auditorium of the new student center, where more than 150 friends and relatives packed the seats and an overflow crowd watched from elsewhere in the building.
The class included a mix of non-traditional students infrequently seen in other schools - veterans of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Army and U.S. Coast Guard; students who left school for years who returned and finished their degrees years later; and full-time working parents seeking new degrees and careers.
Jim Burnham traveled from New York with his wife and two young children to see his sister, Dorinda Burnham, an employee of New London's 911 dispatch center, graduate.
Dorinda Burnham worked full time at the dispatch center while attending school full time to earn her degree in general studies after having been out of college for 12 years.
"I thought I was pretty amazing until I met the other students," said Burnham, the students' elected class speaker. She lived in Groton (her father was in the U.S. Navy), graduated from Robert E. Fitch High School, attended UConn for three years, then joined the workforce before going back to UConn-Avery Point to complete her degree.
She said she looked at graduating not just as an achievement, but as a promise.
"A promise to do better. A promise to be better," she told the class. "Just like me, all of your made a promise to improve your life."
"We're so proud of her," sister-in-law Denise Burnham said.
Gordinier said the class' mix allowed younger students to learn from the experience of older ones, and older students to get recharged by the enthusiasm of younger classmates. All finished because of their "grit," he said.
He said he earned his doctorate degree in his 50s, while raising a family, working and attending school part time. It took him 25 years.
"I still lived that exuberant life," he said, urging the students not to lose their joy in the rush of everyday living.
Finally, he told them to be true to themselves, their values and to examine where their lives are going.
"Ask," he said, "if you're living with intent."