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Mitchell grads told to persevere, help others to do the same

New London — Whether it’s helping a fellow student traverse an icy campus or finding the inner strength to overcome a fall, Mitchell College graduates heard final words of advice Saturday to get up and keep going and help others to do the same.

Mitchell hosted its 73rd commencement ceremony on the college green Saturday on a chilly, cloudy morning that reminded some that spring on the shoreline isn’t always a warm day at the beach.

“This is crazy!” said Edwina Auclair, rushing to greet her grandson, Joey Martin. “I’m moving to Florida! I’m from Concord, New Hampshire. It’s just like this.”

Several graduates said they chose Mitchell for its small size, intimate feel, and yes, the beach. They were pleased with the results.

Graduate Sam Stokley of New London, a business and marketing major, has two jobs lined up starting next week.

Joseph Myers of Martha’s Vineyard doesn’t yet know his next step, but Saturday’s cool sea breeze didn’t bother him.

“It feels great!”

He followed his sister’s footsteps to Mitchell and he, too, enjoyed the small college atmosphere.

Throughout the ceremony, classmates cheered boisterously when others’ names were called and when college President Janet Steinmayer noted several graduates’ accomplishments in her welcoming address.

One of the loudest ovations erupted when Steinmayer awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters to keynote speaker Tatyana McFadden, holder of 17 Paralympics medals and an 18-time major marathon winner.

“Now I’m going to tell the University of Illinois that I’m done,” said McFadden, who is working on her graduate degree in education there. “I’ve already got my doctorate.”

McFadden’s life story could substitute for any college graduation speech on perseverance, taking the less obvious path and getting up when knocked down.

McFadden was never supposed to get up, never mind rise from a fall. Born in Russia with spina bifida, she spent her first six years in “Orphanage No. 13.” Not expected to survive, caretakers provided minimal care and even less nutrition. Potential adoptive parents turned away.

When toddler Tatyana saw other children learning to crawl and walk, she did the only thing she could to keep up. She propelled herself on hands and arms. She never had a wheelchair. "I didn’t even know such a thing existed," she said.

When Deborah McFadden, commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health, visited the orphanage, Tatyana’s new path was before her. Those strong arms that had pulled her across the floor would now propel her to stardom.

But even that path took unexpected turns. Young McFadden was pursuing her passion for Paralympic sprint racing in 2009, when her coach said she should run the Chicago Marathon. He called it a “practice run” for a 400-meter race.

“A marathon? That’s 26.2 miles,” McFadden recalled her reaction. “No way. Distance running is not for me. Not now, not ever.”

She won the Oct. 11, 2009, Chicago Marathon and 16 more since then, including four consecutive Grand Slams of four major marathons in one year. Now 28, she’s made the cover of sports magazines, won an ESPY for best female athlete with a disability in 2016 and was a guest on the Ellen DeGeneres Show — “that was cool!” she told grads.

Keeping with her “life is a marathon” theme, McFadden said no matter what career path they took, there’s no guarantee of a certain outcome. She was cruising to victory in the 2014 New York City Marathon, when an escort police motorcyclist cut the final corner too close and fell.

McFadden did the same, her wheelchair overturned and would-be helpers raced to help. She quickly assessed both bike and self, warned off helpers — she would have been disqualified if anyone had touched her — climbed up and won the marathon with one minute to spare.

“It wasn’t whether I won or lost,” McFadden said. “It was that I fell down and got back up again. The real question is what do we do when we fall down? The only answer is you get up.”

Student speaker Elizabeth Smith of Potsdam, N.Y., who earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration, described a much more mundane experience to make her point that Mitchell students can help one another get through life's marathon. Smith had been slip-sliding across the snowy, icy campus one February morning when she came across a fellow student paralyzed by the same challenge.

They grasped hands and made it to the end of the icy sidewalk.

“We were both more steady on our feet because of the support we gave each other,” Smith said.


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