LEWISTON — Nearly 500 eager graduates gathered at Bates College on Sunday morning under beautiful blue skies to be sent off into the future by an eclectic and entertaining trio of speakers at the private liberal arts college's 146th commencement.
Thousands of family, friends and loved ones lined the school's historic quad and cheered as the Class of 2012, representing 33 states and 31 countries, made its way down the center aisle.
Featured speakers included leading molecular biologist Bonnie Bassler, actor Robert De Niro and PBS "NewsHour" senior correspondent Gwen Ifill. The three also received honorary doctorates from the college.
But it was the Oscar-winning De Niro who stole the spotlight, joking with graduates one minute, poking fun at himself and Bates at other times and ultimately settling into the serious demeanor he's best known for as an actor.
"If you're an actor, always be true to your character," a serious De Niro instructed the graduates. "If you're not an actor, then have character and always be true to yourself."
The 68-year-old De Niro dropped out of high school at age 16 to pursue an acting career. He told students his late mother would be proud of her son, who never graduated from high school or attended college, receiving an honorary doctorate. He also joked with the crowd about how his decision to drop out of school and not attend college saved about $6,000 back in the 1960s.
He joked with the crowd about how his decision today would have saved him roughly $250,000 for an education from Bates, and he got the degree anyway.
Mixed with the laughs about Bates' price tag, the students' wishing Will Ferrell was speaking instead of him, and telling students to be movie stars or "stay in school" because "the world is a scary place," De Niro offered students the same fatherly advice he said he bestowed on his own children.
"You came here, most of you, because of your values. This isn't a day for advice, it's a day for pats on the back," De Niro said. "Keep an open mind. Welcome new experiences. And don't be afraid to fail. If you don't go, you'll never know."
De Niro's message was similar to those of fellow commencement speakers Bassler and Ifill.
"When I was sitting where you're sitting, I'd been living for 22 years with a very strong internal critic," Bassler said, reminiscing about her days as a painfully shy University of California at Davis student. "I never imagined I would be this happy. I get to live a life of curiosity."
And getting there, the Princeton University professor pointedly told the crowd, came not from her degrees in biochemistry or national and international accolades for her scientific discoveries in how bacteria communicate.
It came simply from learning to say "yes" to all the challenges life presented her. Even today, as a nationally recognized scholar, she confessed to students of how she overcome her own fears about sharing Sunday's stage with the likes of De Niro and Ifill. Only by saying "yes" did she pave the way and find the courage to one day stand before future college commencement crowds by gaining the experience before the Bates Class of 2012.
"You do it by finding — or better yet — by making your own adventure. You do it by not saying 'no' because you're a afraid. There's a big difference between not doing something and not wanting to do something," Bassler said. "If I had one do-over in life, I would have learned to say 'yes' much sooner."
Bassler's rousing speech was met by a standing ovation from many in the crowd. Even Ifill, who spoke last, joked about expecting to be overshadowed by De Niro, but not a molecular biologist.
Ifill also urged students to open their minds to the world around them.
"My advice to you: look up," Ifill said. "It's so much simpler to look down. Our feet are down there. Our screens are down there. But our fears are down there, too."
The award-winning PBS journalist and author urged the graduates to take their eyes off their smartphones and computers long enough to recognize their futures and realize there is an entire world out there. A world, she added, that won't improve without them and other young people.
"If you look up, you see you have a responsibility to build a set of steps for all those behind you to catch up," Ifill said.