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MTU returned to in-person graduation Saturday

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Michigan Technological University President Rick Koubek presents a diploma to graduate Jordan Ewing during Saturday’s commencement ceremony.

HOUGHTON — In the first in-person spring commencement in three years, more than 950 Michigan Technological University students received their degrees before a crowd of family, friends and faculty at the Macinnes Student Ice Arena Saturday.

“Congratulations on your latest accomplishment,” President Rick Koubek told the graduates. “It’s truly a time to reflect, rejoice and celebrate hard work and dedication.”

Brooke Tienhaara of Calumet graduated with a bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory science.

If things had gone as planned, she would have graduated last spring. However, with the onset of COVID-19, Tienhaara, who had been a fixture on the Dean’s List, found herself unmoored and flunking out of school.

“The pandemic took away my family and my friends, my classmates who I’d known for years and my carefully planned routines,” she said. “It also felt like my Husky spirit was stolen from me.”

Focused by her desire to return to Tech for her degree, she faced her fears. She sat in her car working up the courage to turn in job applications. She opened up about her struggles to her family and friends.

And in the most difficult step, she reapplied at Tech. She was accepted, and returned to class. With unfamiliar faces all around her, she felt like a freshman. She thanked Tech for fostering a climate of “inclusivity, strength and community.”

“Each time that my lab mates laughed at my jokes or trusted me enough to draw their blood during the phlebotomy lab, I felt my spirit grow stronger,” she said. “When I was given second chances — chances that I wasn’t sure I deserved — by my professors, I felt my spirit grow even stronger. Whether my classmates and my professors knew it, they helped to heal something that was once broken, and I have regained parts of me that I once lost.”

After graduation, Tienhaara plans to work in a hospital lab as an assistant until she begins her practicum next year.

Giving the commencement address was John Bacon, a member of Tech’s Board of Trustees, who has also been a writer, public speaker .

Bacon has also written 12 books, including the one that inspired Koubek to name him a commencement speaker, “Let Them Lead,” about his time coaching his alma mater high school hockey team, the Ann Arbor Huron High School River Rats. Bacon had gone his entire high school career without scoring a goal. He inherited a team that could relate, having gone 0-22-3 the year before.

Bacon relayed advice he’d received from his mentor: make a special for his team. And the easiest way to make it special is to make it hard.

Bacon instilled that mindset in his players, sending them letters telling them they were trying out for “the state’s hardest-working high school hockey team.” His players took note. During a track workout on the hottest day of the summer, his team captain admonished a ninth-grader grumbling about the heat by saying, “Hey, you play for Huron and it’s harder over here.”

That’s when Bacon knew: the culture had been soaked in, and the students were leading the team.

He’s seen enough of Tech students to know they’re cut from the same cloth.

“You live on the snowiest campus in America, but you’ve not just survived here, you’ve thrived here,” he said. “You’ve seen the Northern Lights from your campus. Some of you wear ski goggles to class and cargo shorts — at the same time.”

Even for Michigan Tech grads, doing what they love won’t always mean the money will follow. But he’s been encouraged to see a younger generation motivated less by money or prestige, and instead more focused on “a challenge, mission and a deep sense of belonging.”

Though not a Tech grad himself, he called back to a figure who had a massive impact on his own life, legendary hockey coach John MacInnes. Students respected him so much, they voted to tax themselves to help build the arena where graduates sat Saturday. But Bacon had another reason for being indebted to MacInnes: He founded the Ann Arbor Amateur Hockey Association, where Bacon developed his love of hockey as a squirt player.

“Years from now, when people talk about your lives, they will not talk about how rich or famous he became,” he said. “They will talk about only two things: the values you stood for, and the people you helped.”

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