On Saturday, May 1, nearly 1,400 University of Montana students received their diplomas in two ceremonies inside Washington Grizzly Stadium.

The featured speaker at the 9:00 a.m. event was William ‘Bill’ Franke, businessman and philanthropist, whose naming gift changed the School of Forestry to the W.A. Franke School of Forestry and Conservation.

Franke was awarded an honorary doctorate at the ceremony by UM President Seth Bodnar.

Franke, a leader in the aviation industry worldwide, spoke to students who had weathered the COVID 19 pandemic through to graduation.

“15 months or so ago, you're cruising into the homestretch ready to take the victory lap of your senior year,” began Franke. “Then a deadly virus begin spreading one droplet at a time until the COVID-19 global pandemic effectively shut the world down. In short order your academic experience was disrupted. You were sent home in person learning was replaced by zoom sessions, from your apartment, or even worse from your parents’ basement.”

Franke praised the graduates for their tenacity in persevering through to the end.

“Despite all the roadblocks and detours, you remained dialed in and persistent in pursuit of your academic goals, and that is very, very important,” he said. “Studies and statistics show beyond a doubt that when students choose to withdraw even temporarily from college, they're significantly less likely to earn their degrees. But despite these historically difficult circumstances, you did whatever it took to complete your education. Congratulations.”

Franke then transitioned to sharing the facts of the whole new world they would be entering upon graduation.

“Thanks to ever increasing reliance on production and markets across borders, the world has never been smaller,” he said. “Internationalization has produced a hyper connected global economy. Internationalization creates emerging markets as well as career opportunities. In fact, virtually any career you choose to pursue will be impacted by internationalization.”

Franke urged the graduates to embrace the new world of business, science and conservation.

“It would be difficult not to agree that the world is changing,” he said. “Don't fear that. Don't fear that. Be part of it, capitalize on it, cause it. The classes of 2020 and 2021 are about to take on challenges, the likes of which had been unseen since the Great Depression, and the post World War Two period. I'm sure you're ready. We need you to be ready.”

The speaker for the 2:00 p.m. ceremony was Aislinn Roux, a three-time UM graduate and daughter of Bonnie Heavy Runner, who received a posthumous honorary doctorate from UM President Seth Bodnar.

Since there was no in-person commencement in 2020, both classes were awarded degrees on Saturday.

LOOK: Here are the biggest HBCUs in America

More than 100 historically Black colleges and universities are designated by the U.S. Department of Education, meeting the definition of a school "established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans."

StudySoup compiled the 20 largest historically Black colleges and universities in the nation, based on 2021 data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. Each HBCU on this list is a four-year institution, and the schools are ranked by the total student enrollment.