Susan Rice, who served as national security adviser and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Barack Obama, was among three people awarded honorary degrees from Bowdoin College on Saturday.
The decision to award Rice an honorary degree generated some criticism among Bowdoin alumni but no visible opposition during Saturday’s commencement ceremony in Brunswick, according to the Portland Press Herald.
The criticism centered on Rice’s explanation in the aftermath of the deadly September 2012 attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead. In the days after the attack, Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in television interviews that the attack began as a spontaneous protest against anti-Muslim video rather than a planned attack, judgments she later said came from talking points prepared by the CIA, according to The New York Times.
Prior to serving in the Obama administration, Rice served on the National Security Council and as an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration. She also served as senior national security adviser for the 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign.
Rice, whose grandparents immigrated from Jamaica to Portland, has a strong family connection to Bowdoin, according to the Press Herald. Rice’s mother, Lois Dickson Rice, who died in January 2017, received an honorary degree from the college in 1984, the Press Herald reported. Rice also has four uncles and two cousins who are Bowdoin alumni, the paper reported.
The other recipients of honorary degrees were Nigerian novelist and MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and chemist Thomas R. Cech, who was awarded a Nobel Prize with molecular biologist Sidney Altman for their discovery of the catalytic properties of RNA.
Saturday’s ceremony marked the 213th commencement for the college. Bowdoin President Clayton Rose remarked during an address to the Class of 2018 that when the college graduated its first class Thomas Jefferson was serving his second term as president, Congress was in its ninth term, and Abraham Lincoln would not be born for another three years.
“Very few institutions have been as durable as Bowdoin, a place that embraces both change and a steadfast commitment to our core values as essential elements in providing a great liberal arts education,” Rose said.
Bowdoin awarded 488 bachelor’s degrees to the Class of 2018, including students from 41 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and 19 other countries and territories, according to the college.
Yarmouth native Jasper Houston delivered the greeting to his classmates and their families and friends during Saturday’s ceremony, likening the time spent at Bowdoin to a days-long canoe expedition. Now with degrees in hand, Houston urged his classmates to remember that Maine is a “home” that they can always come back to.
“Wherever life takes you after graduation, I hope you guide yourselves back here at some point, as Maine is a home that will always welcome you with wide arms and an open heart,” Houston said.
Jepte Vergara Benitez, a Hispanic studies major with a biology minor, in his commencement remarks urged his classmates to remember all those — parents, friends, mentors — who helped them on their journey to success.
Benitez, a Texas native, acknowledged his own indebtedness to his parents who immigrated from Mexico to the United States and created many opportunities for him and his brother.
“We are all blessed in many different ways to have parents, guardians, and mentors who have enabled us to make this moment a reality despite obstacles that seemed insurmountable. Humbly, let us all direct our attention to our loved ones now and say: Thank you,” Benitez said.
Helen Galvin Ross, a government and legal studies major with a math minor, in her commencement remarks offered her classmates this advice: never be afraid to fail and never give up.
Ross, a Maryland native, said success has come easy to her and most of her classmates, but added that over the coming years they will find things at which they won’t immediately succeed.
“Any work worth doing, and worth doing with a full heart, will not come easily. A life well-lived is, I suspect, composed from these hidden failures and public mediocrities. There is no paycheck or stock option attached to this commitment. There is, however, I believe, a lot less heartbreak, and lot more fulfillment,” Ross said.
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