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Originally published Saturday, June 9, 2012 at 7:59 PM

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Cautious optimism among UW grads on big day

More than 5,000 students received degrees Saturday at the University of Washington's commencement ceremony at CenturyLink Field.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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When most in the graduating class of 2012 began at the University of Washington, the country was plunging into what would become the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression.

With the job market still recovering, there was a sense of uncertainty mixed with cautious optimism Saturday as more than 5,000 students received their degrees at CenturyLink Field.

"We expected limitless possibilities; we are receiving limited options," said student-body President Conor McLean in a speech to the graduates. "Many of you will stumble in your pursuit of happiness, only to discover opportunities we never conceived as the most remote of possibilities."

Despite the gloom, it was a joyous scene before graduation as students looked into their iPhones to fix their hair and rushed to find friends and family for one last photo before heading in for the ceremony. Many students said that after making it through college during a time of economic anguish and rising fees, they had a newfound confidence in themselves.

Samantha Frimberger said the lifestyle changes she and her classmates had to make during the financial downturn, especially their newfound frugality, will stay with them for the rest of their lives. But she said she didn't see the point of being pessimistic about the future.

"I think our generation is more hopeful now than others might think," she said.

Other students expressed similar sentiments. Graduate student Alicia Tate worked 20 hours a week at a day care while pursuing a master's in library sciences over the past four years. Tate, who has multiple sclerosis, said she originally wanted to move to Seattle to attend school, but with tuition rising she opted to take online courses.

The decision saved her money and also allowed her daughter to finish primary school in Portland. In the end, she said, it all worked out.

"I feel blessed," she said.

Learning to deal with life's uncertainties and being open to change were at the heart of commencement speaker Lisa Jackson's remarks.

Jackson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said that while growing up in Louisiana she had expected to work for a major oil company. But when she left Tulane University, she instead moved on to graduate school and eventually the EPA.

Jackson urged students to buck the growing partisanship in the country, asking them instead to embrace what they don't know and seek out other viewpoints.

"This attitude of absolute certainty and total refusal to listen and compromise is certainly toxic. It is not only reductive and corrosive, but it is insufficient to our complicated challenges, which don't tend to conform nicely and neatly to absolutes."

Earlier in the ceremony, McLean, the student-body president, drew applause from the crowd of 40,000 when he recalled the words of Yale student Marina Keegan, who died in a car crash just days after her commencement. Keegan's hopeful final essay in the Yale student paper went viral as news of her death spread.

"What we have to remember, she wrote, is that we can still do anything," McLean said, drawing applause. "We can change our minds, we can start over.

"We can't, we must not lose this sense of possibility, because in the end, it's all we have."

Javier Panzar: 206-464-2253 or jpanzar@seattletimes.com

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