COLLEGE PARK — — Americans are a resilient people who flourish when presented with difficult times, Victoria Reggie Kennedy told University of Maryland graduates on Thursday night at their campuswide commencement.
"You are leaving school at a time of testing for our nation," said Kennedy, the widow of late U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. "But we Americans are tough. No problem is too hard. No challenge is too great."
Kennedy is an attorney and activist on health care, guns, homelessness and issues of economic opportunity. She founded Common Sense About Kids and Guns, a nonprofit that attempts to reduce gun violence against children.
She asked graduates to focus on civility, citizenship and service, noting that her husband was a "joyous partisan" who was nonetheless voted the best senator to work with by colleagues across the aisle. "He could tell a joke; he could take a joke," she said.
Kennedy drew raucous applause at the Comcast Center when she trumpeted the national health care bill ,
her husband's dream, which passed less than a year after his death last August.
She praised students for the activism of their generation. "I hope you will not only continue to succeed but also to serve," she said. "I have great faith in our country's future because of you."
University President C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr. presided over his final commencement. He plans step down this summer after 12 years. Mote received a standing ovation from the students when he took the lectern.
The state's flagship university graduated 7,144 students, including 5,148 bachelor's candidates, 1,520 master's candidates and 476 doctoral candidates.
Onyinyechi Eke delivered the student commencement address, recalling how lost she felt her first day on campus. When she went home that night, her parents told her, "If you want to succeed, do hard things." She echoed that message last night.
Eke moved to Maryland from Nigeria four years ago and hopes to return once she has become a doctor to fix her home nation's "broken" health care system. She told fellow graduates not to fear the difficult job market.
"For Terps, such news should not alarm us," she said. "We know not to set limits because we know how to work hard."
The university also gave its highest honor, the University Medal, to 20-year-old Sarah Peltzmeier of Silver Spring. Peltzmeier was an award-winning immunology researcher with a 3.99 grade-point-average who also found time to shine as a concert pianist. She was a finalist for a 2010 Rhodes scholarship.