Kelly Ayotte speaks to New England College graduates
Kira Zannoni, of Winchester, Massachusetts, shares a moment with her mother, Mary Boissonneault, of Pelham, after the graduation ceremony at New England College, where she finished her undergrad degree in fine arts. The ceremony was held at the Henniker campus on Saturday, May 18, 2013.
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)
Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate Kelly Ayotte speaks to the Monitor during an editorial review board; Thursday, August 12, 2010.
(Alexander Cohn/Monitor Staff)
At Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s own college graduation, she wouldn’t have believed she would someday hold public office.
“But I’m living proof that life surprises you,” she told New England College graduates yesterday.
Ayotte was the keynote speaker at the college’s commencement ceremony in Henniker, where she received an honorary degree. The Republican senator and former New Hampshire attorney general didn’t speak about politics yesterday. Instead, she told graduates about the start of her career as an attorney and encouraged them to pursue their own passions.
But the content of her speech didn’t stop some graduates from silently protesting Ayotte’s presence – many of them held signs and wore rainbow pins on their gowns in support of gay rights.
Jesse Kilcullen held a sign proclaiming “gay rights are civil rights” during
Ayotte’s speech, and said she disagreed with the college’s decision to invite Ayotte. Many students don’t share the senator’s conservative political beliefs, she said.
“I think it was in poor taste for the school . . . we’re known to be a very liberal place,” Kilcullen said.
Other students distributed fliers before yesterday’s ceremony, proclaiming that “NEC students, faculty & staff support equality.”
Graduate Erin Faith Page, who was the undergraduate speaker yesterday, gathered signatures on a petition and circulated an online video in protest of Ayotte’s visit. As a gay woman, she couldn’t support her school’s choice of speaker, she told The Telegraph last month.
Page told WMUR last week that she planned to have a diversity flag onstage as she spoke, but said at the start of her speech yesterday that she decided it would be in the way of the flowers at the podium. She didn’t mention gay rights – or Ayotte – in her address, which focused on New England College as a “never-ending circus.”
Students’ four years on the Henniker campus were magical, Page said, with “plenty of weird.” Each day was filled with studying to prepare for productions like tests, papers and shows, with professors as ringmasters and classmates as “fellow circus freaks,” she said.
“Relish this moment as one as we come together as a community for the last time,” Page said. “Because our never-ending circus is ending, but a new experience is just beginning.”
Ayotte spoke of life after graduation, and told graduates they’ll find unexpected opportunities. She began as a lawyer at a private firm, hoping to “make a lot of money” and have a successful career. But after working as a defense attorney, she decided to become a prosecutor.
“But I have to tell you, when I first applied for the attorney general’s office, guess what?” she said. “I didn’t get the job. And it was discouraging. . . . So I want to say to all of you, if there’s something you really want to do, keep at it. Don’t take no for an answer.”
Ayotte told graduates it was difficult to leave her comfort zone and her job as attorney general to run for the U.S. Senate in 2009.
“I decided to do this, again to take a risk, because I was concerned about the state of our country and the economic challenges we face and, frankly, the opportunities that I hope all of you will have as you graduate from this great institution,” she said.
Jack Maguire, a member of the college’s board of trustees, introduced Ayotte yesterday, noting her growing influence in national politics.
“It has occurred to some of us who risk making political forecasts that Sen. Kelly Ayotte stands a double-digit chance of becoming the first woman president of the United States, Maguire said. “Graduates, remember this probabilistic prediction. It could someday add further luster to this great day.”
Graduate Ryan Beausoleil said he enjoyed Ayotte’s speech.
“I felt privileged because having a sitting senator speak at your graduation, it’s a big deal,” he said.
Beausoleil grew up in Littleton and majored in criminal justice. He hopes to find a job working as a police officer in New Hampshire.
Greg Fournier, who earned degrees in history and biology yesterday, said he enjoyed all of the speakers.
“I thought (Ayotte) handled it well . . . kept it very friendly,” he said.
Fournier, a Henniker native, said he is “ecstatic” to graduate and to continue looking for jobs in biomedical engineering.
Kilcullen, who joined in protesting Ayotte’s speech, said she is going “wherever the wind takes me.” The graduate from Westchester, N.Y., earned a degree in biology and hopes to find a job doing biomedical research before pursuing a Ph.D.
Other students joined yesterday’s quiet protest, but said they didn’t have strong personal opinions about the senator’s visit.
“I wasn’t angry, but because some people I knew felt strongly about it, I wanted to support them,” said Haley Kovich of Barrington, R.I.
Kovich studied English and creative writing, and she hopes to find a job in Boston while pursuing her dream of writing novels. She said she’s looking forward to “just breaking out on my own” and learning to live independently, away from her parents and the comforts of a college campus.
Graduate Alicia Bartosik said she didn’t feel strongly about the school’s choice of speakers because she doesn’t follow Ayotte’s political career. “I think it’s great that we got a senator to come here,” she said.
Bartosik, who earned a degree in history, will spend next year as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Boston schools. Graduation is bittersweet, she said, but “it’s time.”
Though their studies are over, graduate student speaker Amy Levesque reminded her classmates yesterday that their learning will continue.
“Tomorrow is going to be the first day of a new semester, and we get to choose what to learn next,” Levesque said.