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SALT LAKE CITY — When Marissa Manzanares walked into the Jon M. Huntsman Center on Thursday, she hoped she was starting a tradition in her family that will extend across generations.
The Salt Lake City resident is the first of her siblings, parents and grandparents to graduate from college.
"I feel like this is more for my family than just myself," Manzanares said. "I'm representing my entire family. So this is a huge deal for all of us."
She was one of 8,363 people awarded degrees Thursday who together make up the University of Utah's largest graduating class to date. It's taken Manzanares five years to complete her bachelor's degree in social work, but she hopes her example of persistence — and that of the other members of her class — will be enough to inspire her family to enroll in college.
"It's unbelievable. It came really, really fast, though when you're in the moment, it dragged on forever. But it's finally here," she said. "I'm encouraging my family to apply here. I just love the strong sense of community and school spirit the U. has."
The class of 2015 from Utah's flagship university is made up of people from across the globe, including all 50 states and 77 countries. In total, the university awarded 8,830 degrees from its 17 colleges:
• 5,665 bachelor's degrees
• 2,158 master's degrees
• 744 doctorates
• 124 juris doctors
• 80 doctors of medicine
• 59 doctors of pharmacy
The graduates and thousands of other attendees, who nearly filled the center, heard words of advice from commencement speaker Robert McDonald, U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs, former president and CEO of Procter & Gamble Co., and U. graduate of 1978.
As you embark on this next phase of life, my advice to you is this: Create your own story. Your future will almost surely include some challenges and maybe shortcomings. But those perceived failures may very well be the exact catalyst you need to grow. The map to success is yours to create.
–David Pershing, university president
He drew on his experience in working with military veterans throughout the country to encourage the graduates to serve others.
"Purpose is first and most important. My life has had a continuity of purpose. For me, it's always been about improving the lives of others," McDonald said. "Graduates, decide tonight to make a difference in the life of someone else."
He also told them to be lifelong learners and to take on life with confidence.
"To you, ready to graduate, it may seem like time passed slowly to get to this point. Well, hang on, because things are about to start moving at light speed," McDonald said. "If you're worried about no longer being a student after this evening, don't. Be a student every single day of your life.
"Life has a great deal to teach you and to teach us all," he said.
University President David Pershing's remarks to the graduates were brief but well received. He encouraged them to find learning opportunities in both success and failure throughout life.
"As you embark on this next phase of life, my advice to you is this: Create your own story," Pershing said. "Your future will almost surely include some challenges and maybe shortcomings. But those perceived failures may very well be the exact catalyst you need to grow.
"The map to success is yours to create," he said.
In addition to numerous awards for students and faculty, the university awarded three honorary degrees during Thursday's commencement ceremony. Anne Cullimore Decker, best known for her work in theater, opera, television and film, as well as teaching at Utah, was awarded the honorary degree of doctor of fine arts.
Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters for his contributions as an educator and prominent religious leader.
Mark Fuller is the CEO of WET, the company behind many of the world's most well-known water and fire features, such as the Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas and the Olympic Cauldron for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. He received the honorary degree of doctor of engineering.