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KENT -- Academy Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer told graduates to "keep your hearts open to life's unforeseeable possibilities" during her keynote speech at Kent State University's 2017 commencement ceremony on Saturday in Dix Stadium.
"My 21-year-old self thought by this age I would be done with my semi-successful acting career, married and raising a family," she said. "I wasn't semi-successful as an actress. I'm a hugely successful actress, but unmarried with no family. Life is unpredictable, but I'm still extremely happy."
This was the first time in Kent State's history spanning 256 commencement ceremonies that all the graduates from eight campuses gathered in once place, said KSU president Beverly Warren, who called the event "an historic commencement." It was also the first time graduation was held outside at the stadium and the first time to have an Academy-Award winning actress as keynote speaker, which cost the university $100,000.
About 2,000 graduates and 5,000 guests attended the university-wide ceremony. In all, KSU conferred 5,000 degrees.
Associate professor Kishna Fowler sang the national anthem as Kent State pilots flew planes overhead. Spencer met with film students in the morning and delivered her keynote speech around 11 a.m.
Spencer was one of seven children whose mother was a maid in Alabama and the first to attend and graduate from college in her family. She said portraying a maid in "The Help" led her to bigger roles as Dorothy Vaughan in "Hidden Figures" and God in "The Shack."
"Taraji, Janelle and I portrayed women who worked for NASA at a time at best can be described as turbulent crossroads of our history," she said. "They responded to that tumultuous time and efforts to quiet their voices by rolling up their sleeves and doing the work and I think that's fair to say that we're in a similar period right now and no matter where your values lie, you're going to have to roll up your sleeves just like Dorothy Vaughan."
The ceremony was expected to draw 12,000, according to Spencer's contract. The university wanted a high-profile speaker to highlight the first time all graduates were honored in one ceremony and thought her personal story would resonate with the graduates.
The most popular field of study was Fashion Merchandising with 181 graduates, followed by 160 graduates earning a degree in business administration.
Some graduates of the Class of 2017 were recognized at the ceremony for their outstanding accomplishments, including Kerry Richmond, public relations graduate who wrote policy recommendations in Washington D.C. based on her experiences in the foster care system.
Jimmy Miller, journalism and mass communications major and editor at the Kent Stater, was recognized by Investigative Reports and Editors Inc. for top-notch reporting on voting rights prior to the 2016 presidential election. Nineteen-year-old Chante'l Owens of Cleveland was the the youngest to graduate, with a degree in public health.
Warren conferred degrees upon the students, including associate, bachelor's and master's degrees, and led them to move their tassels from right to left.
In the afternoon, the graduates dispersed to different locations on campus to walk across a stage and receive their diploma.
In closing remarks, Spencer encouraged the graduates to continue their education by reading Virginia Woolf and Maya Angelou, and left them with a quote from Waldo Emerson: "Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."