More than 300 of the newest graduates of Harford Community College received their degrees and certificates Thursday evening, the first step on what college officials hope will be a lifelong journey of learning.

"You're forever a part of Harford Community College, so please, keep in touch, let us know how you're doing and what your next great success is; we're all ears," Bryan Kelly, chairman of the college's Board of Trustees, said during his welcoming remarks.

Thursday's ceremony was the 55th commencement for the college, and the first held in the campus' new APG Federal Credit Union Arena that opened last fall.

The graduates, dressed in royal blue caps and gowns, sat in rows of chairs on the arena floor; faculty members in black caps and gowns sat in front of them.

Kelly called the arena "just a terrific asset for our folks," and an example of what could be accomplished when institutions of government, education and business work together.

Lyle E. Sheldon, president and CEO of Upper Chesapeake Health, was the commencement speaker. Upper Chesapeake Health is a not-for-profit organization which operates Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air and Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace.

"Remember that no one can take away your education," he told the graduates. "You invested a lot of time in getting it; please use it wisely."

Sheldon has lived in Harford County since 1987, when he became vice president and chief operating officer for Upper Chesapeake. He has been president and CEO since 1995, according to the commencement program.

He resides in Havre de Grace with his wife Donna. They have four children, whom Sheldon noted in his speech have all attended Harford Community College, and two grandchildren.

Sheldon advised the graduates to "live your life personally and to give back to your community."

He said that meant finding work which matches the things the graduates care about, and to work to make Harford County and the world a better place, as both grow more complex.

"It's also doing simple things with care, with pride, with thoughtfulness, that mean much more than we can ever imagine," Sheldon said.

College President Dennis Golladay pointed to the faculty as an example of Sheldon's ethos of living personally.

"You have sitting in front of you, graduates, faculty here who have found their life's calling, who are passionate about their work and who do give back to all of us," he said.

Friends and relatives screamed in delight as their graduate's name was called to receive an associate's degree or certificate.

Casey Seibel, 16, of Dundalk, cheered as her brother Taylor Austin of Bel Air strode across the stage to get his degree in business administration.

Casey said she was "very proud" of her brother.

"I wouldn't be sitting here in this ceremony if I wasn't proud of him," she said.

Her aunt Kimberly Colwell, also of the Dundalk area, noted graduation ceremonies can be long; Thursday's clocked in at about two hours.

Colwell said her nephew is the second in her family to get an associate's degree.