CEDAR CITY — Ann Romney recalled being nervous at her own college graduation as she offered advice to students graduating from Southern Utah University Friday.
"It was the end of the turbulent '60s and the beginning of the troubled '70s," she told the graduates. "I was already a new wife and a mother. I remember as I sat where you are sitting now I had a very clear realization that I had no idea what was next for me."
She reassured the nearly 1,800 graduates that as they leave the structure of academia for a life they must define on their own, "There is adventure ahead."
SUU President Scott Wyatt introduced the former first lady of Massachusetts and wife of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney as a "bold and brave advocate for family values."
Ann Romney was awarded an honorary doctorate for public service before delivering a keynote addressed focused on family and service to an overflow crowd in the Centrum Arena. The mother of five told graduates that parenting is likely one of the most important, though most challenging, responsibilities they can take on.
"Too often young people put off parenting thinking they can't have a career and a family," she said. "I believe you should make time to be a parent as it will teach you to truly serve others and work for something and someone beside yourself."
Amy Staudt, a Cedar City native who graduated with an accounting degree Friday, thought of her own family as she listened to Romney's address.
"I liked the focus on family and not just on money," said Staudt, who married a fellow student partway through her time at SUU. "She was really inspiring. It made me want to go out and help people."
Romney's remarks also included a spiritual note: "The Bible works, so do what it says."
"You may not believe like I do that the Bible was inspired by God. But if not, you'd surely have to admit it was written by some of the greatest philosophers and thinkers in history," she said, promising that doing so has made her life happier and more abundant.
She added that the Bible instructs couples to go out of their parents' homes.
"Your parents will agree wholeheartedly with this one," she said, drawing a laugh from the overflow crowd. "It used to be that the American Dream was to own your own home. Now the American Dream is getting your kids out of the home you own."
Romney urged graduates to find fulfilment through a "purpose-driven life," recalling her battle with multiple sclerosis even as her husband was asked to come work with the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
"My right leg was numb, I was losing my balance, I was stumbling, I was very fatigued and unable to do very much," she said. "Beyond anything else, I was frightened. The disease was progressing rapidly and I had no idea how debilitated I would become."
The timing was terrible, she said, but the Romneys accepted the call even with her prognosis.
"It was also the best move we ever made because it came with a higher purpose. The games were highly successful, we made friends we will treasure for a lifetime and I found that the therapy and blessings I received in Utah helped put my MS in remission," she said. "In fact, I was able to run the Olympic torch into Salt Lake City just prior to the Opening Ceremonies."
Romney also advised graduates that while they might not remember everything they learned in SUU's classrooms, they will treasure friendships that endure from their college experience. She encouraged them not to judge others or themselves too harshly, to do their best in whatever job they're in, do something they love daily and to be kind to others.
Kurt Christensen, who came to SUU from Oak City to earn a degree in finance, brushed off compliments about his mother as they celebrated after the ceremony. He called the day bittersweet.
"All my friends are still here. I guess I have to go get a full-time job and grow up all the way," he laughed.
Christensen has a job interview Monday.
Student speaker Valerie Owens, an English graduate from St. George, told her classmates to enroll in the "university of experience" to continue their educations throughout their lives.
"The curriculum of experience at this university is simple — the continual attainment of knowledge and endless personal progression and growth. The campus is the largest in existence," she said. "I look forward to all the experiences we will gain and the truths we will find. May we never cease to learn."