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At UM commencement, Al Gore urges graduates 'to reclaim the integrity of American democracy'

Speaking to 2018 graduates at the University of Maryland on Sunday, it wasn’t until 19 minutes into a 22-minute speech that former Vice President Al Gore mentioned President Donald Trump’s name.

But his address nonetheless marked a commencement ceremony that pushed graduates to fight what both Gore and university President Wallace Loh described as challenges to American democracy.

Gore, nowadays best known for his advocacy to fight global warming that earned him a Nobel Prize in 2007, urged the graduates to vote in large numbers in the coming years, suggesting that America’s “experiment” with the Trump administration should, like some scientific ventures, “be terminated early for ethical reasons.”

“Your generation has a mission ahead of it,” Gore said. “I hope that you will find the will to succeed. In America, the will to succeed is, in fact, a renewable resource.”

Loh offered similar exhortations, without mentioning Trump.

“When the heart and soul of our democracy is being challenged, what have you done?” he said. “What will you do?”

Some 7,500 of the university’s 40,000 students earned their degrees in a ceremony at Xfinity Center on the state’s flagship campus in College Park.

A committee of students chose Gore to speak at their graduation, and his address included what he acknowledged were commencement cliches. He quoted Spanish poet Antonio Machado in encouraging the students not to fear failure; he invoked Nelson Mandela in calling on them to reject hatred and resentment.

But at its heart, his speech was political. The Democrat who served with President Bill Clinton urged the audience of early 20-somethings to prove wrong the statistics showing their demographic votes in smaller numbers than older citizens.

“What if, in this year and the years immediately following, something truly extraordinary happened?” Gore said. He said he hoped to see “an American youth movement” that will vote in “unprecedented numbers and reclaim the integrity of American democracy.”

On global warming, a topic he helped raise in public consciousness through the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” he pointed to hurricanes that flooded Texas and Louisiana and destroyed much of Puerto Rico last year, criticizing the Trump administration for not doing more to help Puerto Ricans in particular. Students cheered as he called on society to act more quickly to combat climate change.

“We fail to measure the full consequences of the choices we make,” he said. “We have to reclaim our own destiny by measuring what really matters to our future, starting with a decision to reduce the global warming pollution.”

Even as deans took turns recognizing the graduates from their colleges, they recognized work to stop gun violence, improve nutrition, uphold the international Paris climate accord and prevent foreign interference in U.S. elections.

“Every day, and in every way, you are making democracy work,” said Robert Orr, dean of the school of public policy.

The graduates were mixed on the heavy political tone.

"I loved the shade at Trump," said Alexis Hickson, a 22-year-old from Yorktown, N.Y.

But 24-year-old Niko Fedkin said while he appreciated the encouragement, and even the push for increased voter turnout, he didn't think the rhetoric about democracy being at risk was fair.

"It's up to who you ask," the Pennsylvania native said. "I think he went a little bit far."

During her speech, student speaker Michelle Sauer simply focused on a university marketing slogan that has become a mantra for students — “Fear the turtle.”

“What does it mean to be fearless?” she asked her classmates. She recalled a sense that, as she struggled to learn to read as a child, that her teachers were giving up on her. The English and secondary education double major from Minnesota said she maintained a form of impostor syndrome as she began student teaching this past semester.

But she said the fearlessness she learned from her mother and from so many teachers, including those she has watched protest around the country for better compensation and funding, pushed her to model that bravery for her students. She said she was proud to see many of the Montgomery County seventh-graders who had struggled sign up for honors classes in the next academic year.

“They would never hear that I am giving up on them and hopefully I inspired them to never give up on themselves,” Sauer said.

Quoting author J.K. Rowling, she encouraged her fellow graduates, “Anything is possible if you’ve got enough nerve.”

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