BAR HARBOR, Maine — College of the Atlantic is by no means a typical higher-learning institution, so it only makes sense that its graduation ceremony be atypical.
Graduates don’t wear gowns or caps with tassels. They don’t march in stick-straight lines to “Pomp and Circumstance.” Their degrees all list the same major: human ecology.
But don’t be fooled. The 80 students who graduated Saturday from the private, specialized school overlooking Frenchman Bay are far from cookie-cutter. They are a self-described class of outsiders — a community of misfits whose diverse backgrounds and experiences merge to create a college atmosphere unlike any other.
“This place has created nothing but opportunities,” said Samuel Heller of Seattle. “There were no constraints but those we placed on ourselves.”
Heller was part of COA’s 37th graduating class, which represented 22 states and 10 nations. Though the students’ degrees are the same, the college’s curriculum is interdisciplinary and nondepartmental, emphasizing individualized study. The graduates further distinguish themselves through their internship experiences and sen-ior research projects, which are as varied as the students themselves.
“That’s how we’re different,” Heller explained. “Our degree is not static. It’s not something to hang on the wall. It’s alive.”
Virve Hirsmaki of Finland, who was among a small group of students asked to share their experience at Saturday’s ceremony, became the first member of her family to attend and graduate from college.
Hirsmaki said she came to College of the Atlantic to help break that family cycle and said, “Being educated is the biggest source of confidence I could have.”
Nicholas Janei of Westlake Village, Calif., and Jasmine Smith of Portland also were asked to speak on Saturday but chose a slightly different path. They wanted to create something spontaneous and great and beautiful, much like the college itself was created in 1969, Janei said.
So the two ordered the audience to stand.
“We’re going to re-create the rain,” Janei explained.
First, they told the crowd to rub their hands together, creating a muffled rustling noise that indeed sounded like falling rain. Then they all began to snap their fingers in unison, mimicking the sound of raindrops on pavement. Then they stomped their feet, signifying heavier rain.
The experience was indicative of the COA curriculum, Smith said: different but still fun.
Steve Katona, former president and founding faculty member of College of the Atlantic, gave the commencement speech, which he predicted would be “not as long as you fear, but not as short as you wish.”
The speech featured a personal account of Katona’s recent struggle with leukemia and how he became paired with a stem cell donor to fight the disease. He used the story as a parable for the connectivity and symbiosis of life, which is a central element in human ecology.
“There is a saying, ‘When you save a life, you save a universe,’” Katona said. “I don’t know if I can live up to that, but I’m glad to be saved anyway.”
In addition to the 80 undergraduates who received a Bachelor of Arts degree in human ecology, one student earned a Master of Philosophy in human ecology, the only other degree offered at COA.
Three people received honorary degrees: Lucy Bell Sellers, who launched COA’s theater program in 1986; Tom Chappell, who co-founded the natural care products company Tom’s of Maine with his wife; and John Kelly, a Portland-based lawyer who has served on the COA board of trustees.
COA President David Hales, who delivered the welcoming address, said the 2009 graduates face challenging and complex times, but he stressed that the challenges are not environmental or economic or social.
“They are just challenges,” he said. “But because we can make a difference, we have a responsibility to do so. That’s my challenge to you.”