Smith implored the 1,998 graduates Thursday to pursue careers that speak to their passions, then several times instructed students seated to her left to utter, "Do what you love," while telling the right side of the room to say, "Love what you do."
"I have so many friends who are devastated that she's leaving," said AACC student Schaeffer Seabrook. "She's so amazing."
Smith, 63, who became AACC's fifth president in August 1994, announced her retirement in April last year. She will officially step down as president Aug. 1. Last month, AACC named her successor, Dawn Lindsay of Glendale Community College in California.
Smith has agreed to continue working for AACC as a consultant. AACC spokesman Dan Baum said that the school's board of trustees has entered into a five-year deal with Smith that offers annual compensation of $140,000 as well as health and retirement benefits at a reduced rate. Smith's annual salary as president of AACC was $234,000.
In her 18 years as president, Smith opened an on-campus Center for Applied Learning and Technology as well as an off-campus Sales and Service Training Center and Regional Higher Education Center at Arundel Mills and a Hotel, Culinary Arts and Tourism Institute in Glen Burnie. The school's new library will open in August.
During her tenure, the school was named the National Alliance of Business' Community College of the Year.
"She's been very motivating, very inspiring and always there for us," said Abdul Khan, AACC student association president. "It will definitely be hard to fill her shoes."
She spoke at Thursday's commencement before the largest graduating class in the school's 50-year history.
"What I'm most proud of is what this place does for individual students in helping them change their lives," said Smith, who during an interview in her office on Tuesday broke down crying when asked what experiences she had taken from the school in 18 years.
"The 18 years I've had here is one of the richest possible gifts a person could have in their lifetime," Smith said. "When you come to commencement and you look out at those graduates, you see America, and you see that year after year after year. Fortunately the numbers keep growing. That's a really good thing."
But the end of her tenure has come with challenges. Last year, AACC trustees approved a $110.6 million operating budget proposal that included a tuition-and-fee increase of $16 per credit hour, the largest such increase in school history.
Smith said that budget shortfalls, particularly in what she called "unprecedented" cuts in government funding, have made her last year as president a difficult one. She added that budget concerns are among the biggest challenges that Lindsay will face in the coming years.
"I think she's walking into ... a much better situation than that of [fiscal year] 2012," said Smith of Lindsay. She added that increased student fees for this year will give the school more revenue entering next year.
She said that the state has already pledged increased funds for colleges and added that AACC officials believe they will be successful in petitioning the county to restore some of the funding lost in last year's budget.
But she added that she believes the school made the right decision in choosing Lindsay from more than 120 applicants. "She gets why we're here," said Smith. "We're here to help students become successful and either transfer to four-year schools or enter the workforce."
After her commencement address, AACC officials presented Smith with several gifts, including an AACC T-shirt with the words "Lifelong Learner" on the back. AACC students past and present lauded her for guiding the school through difficult times over her last few years.
"I really admire all the challenges she overcame during her 18 years, but more specifically, with the past year or two when we've had some challenges with the budgeting and County Council," said Morgan O'Brien, who graduated from AACC last year with two associate degrees and is now a student at Towson University. "I really feel so honored to be one of the students she's touched."