When Shuping Yang arrived in the United States from China four years ago, she said, she took a deep breath and immediately realized the difference in air quality. She no longer needed her respiratory mask to go outside.
Yang, the student speaker at the commencement ceremony for the University of Maryland, College Park, said college exposed her to experiences that filled her lungs with a sense of exhilaration and opportunity.
The psychology and theater major revisited that moment at Washington Dulles International Airport.
"The air was so sweet and fresh and oddly luxurious," she said. "I can't help but recall that feeling of freedom. ... My friends, enjoy the fresh air, and never, ever let it go."
The ceremony at the Xfinity Center on campus featured the usual fanfare, with graduates throwing red streamers into the air throughout the ceremony, and an emphasis on the need for their skills, creativity and ideas to solve the problems facing Maryland, the United States and the world today.
The commencement began on a somber note, as University President Wallace Loh led graduates and their families in a moment of silence for a Bowie State University student who was stabbed to death on campus Saturday in what Loh called "a senseless and unprovoked assault." Maryland student Sean Christopher Urbanski, of Severna Park, has been charged with first-degree murder in the killing.
Film producer and former Major League Baseball pitcher Mark Ciardi, a 1983 Maryland graduate, told this year's class that he has approached the challenges in his life as an underdog, and encouraged them to do the same. He recovered from an ankle injury in college, was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers and played briefly in the majors — four games, three starts, one win, one loss — before a shoulder injury forced him to retire.
"I became a reluctant underdog in my own unfolding story," he said. "How you handle adversity will define you."
Ciardi described his career in film production an unlikely success, given his lack of any experience. His hit movies "The Rookie," "Miracle," "Secretariat" and "Invincible" all focused on underdogs. He said the University of Maryland and its graduates have the same attitude: fearless, scrappy and entrepreneurial.
He quoted from "Miracle," his 2004 film about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team: "This is your time. Go out and take it."
Loh acknowledged the "Golden Terps" from the Emeritus Alumni Society, who celebrated the 50th anniversary of their college graduation, by reflecting on 1967, when protests were exploding across the country over the Vietnam War. He compared the politically charged atmospheres in the country then and now, and said the university's graduates are prepared to meet the nation's challenges head-on.
"I have every confidence that the class of 2017 will contribute to the greatness of America," he said.
Yang, who didn't speak English when she moved to the United States, said she discovered in college that not only could she speak out and question authority — she could even rate her professors online.
A production of "Twilight: Los Angeles," a one-woman play about the riots that followed the police beating of Rodney King, exposed her to the power of political storytelling, she said.
"Everyone has the right to participate and advocate for change," she said. "No matter what we do, remember that democracy and free speech should not be taken for granted. Freedom is oxygen. Freedom is passion. Freedom is love."
Loh embraced Yang's vision, He paused the program after her speech to tell her, "You have expressed some of the deepest feelings I have for this country. It is and will always be a shining city on a hill."
The university president read excerpts from Dr. Seuss' "Oh The Places You'll Go," and a series of tweets students had sent him containing their thoughts on Maryland in seven words or less.
"Memories that will last me a lifetime," one said.
"Flew 5,000 miles for this. Worth everything," said another.
"Why are you making me graduate?" wrote a third.
Ellen Lowry, 22, from Boston, graduated with a degree in communication. She will intern at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. She said she enjoyed hearing from the ceremony's speakers.
"It was amazing to see the amount of diverse talents we have at our school," she said.
Loh reminded students that terrapins are unable to walk backward. The point resonated with Tori Jones, 20, a graduating business major from Perry Hall.
"We're Terps — always moving forward," she said. "We are innovators and we have the power to define our own success."
Zwannah Dukuly, 22, from Howell, N.J., was inspired by the message that every Maryland graduate has something unique to offer society.
"Everyone can play a role in shaping the future," he said. "We're the next leaders in the world, and we can all play a part."