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FITCHBURG — Christopher Maloney, a 1989 graduate of Fitchburg State University, urged the approximately 570 graduates at the 118th commencement exercises of Fitchburg State University Saturday morning to develop their own plan and forge their own path as they entered the world.

“Your first challenge as you leave this university is to develop your own plan. Don’t procrastinate and don’t put it off till tomorrow. The world is waiting for you, and to be honest, the world needs all the new ideas, energy and optimism that all of you possess,” he said.

It’s their ideas and talents that will make the world a better place in the long run, he said.

“Deep inside of you is a special talent just waiting to be discovered and the only way you’ll find it is by challenging yourself. It’s through challenging ourselves that we find out who we really are, and I know you’ll be pleasantly surprised,” he said.

Three graduates who already have plans for themselves are Dylan Finn, of Fitchburg, Dylan Hicks, of Tempeton, and Seth Lavenski, of Ashburnham. They were commissioned as second lieutenants in the U.S. Army in a ceremony at Worcester Polytechnic Institute before graduation.

All three arrived as the graduation ceremony got under way, and while they were the last to receive their diplomas, the crowd gave them a thunderous standing ovation.

Finn and Hicks earned degrees in criminal justice, while Lavenski’s degree is in industrial technology.

Faculty member David Weiss acknowledged the accomplishment before the three received their degrees.

“They have arrived here during the ceremony to celebrate with their fellow students,” he said. He encouraged everyone in attendance to join him “in acknowledging their actions.”

Kristen Liming, of Ashburnham, earned a degree in English, and said before the ceremony she had nearly a dozen applications out for teaching positions.

She praised the opportunities she was given at the university, saying everyone she met during her four years was friendly and pushed her to succeed at everything she did.

Jessica LeClerc, of Templeton, plans to attend graduate school at Fitchburg State, majoring in special education, with classes beginning in a matter of weeks.

LeClerc, who has a 3-year-old daughter, hailed pursuing a college degree and graduating as one of her greatest accomplishments, saying it will only help her succeed in the long run.

“I’d like to have a job for my daughter and for myself. She deserves better,” she said.

Senior Class President Sarah M. Minton presented classmates with a gold key that had yet to be formed to unlock a particular lock. She urged graduates to use their key to find the right lock that would open the door to their futures.

Maloney said each graduate’s diploma recognized his or her “academic accomplishments” and he believed “there is no doubt it will serve you well as you leave this university.”

Equally important, he said, is the “full experience” students received at the university.

“Whether you were living in the dormitories or rented an apartment with a couple of friends on Highland, Congress, or Myrtle Avenue, the lessons you learned while not under the watchful eye of your mother and father cannot be underestimated,” he said. “It was during the years spent on this campus that I, like you, developed my own independence while learning a true sense of responsibility and teamwork. Those are two critical skills that will serve you well no matter what field of work you enter.”

During Maloney’s junior year, he was urged by his adviser to develop a plan by visiting people who had careers in areas he found interesting. His uncle was working as a state probation officer in Boston, and he instantly fell in love with the profession.

“Fortunately for me and my parents, I had never seen the criminal-justice system that close up and I was instantly attracted,” he said. “Being a probation officer seemed to balance the public-safety responsibilities of a law-enforcement officer with the high purpose of helping people turn their lives around.”

His uncle advised him that while graduating with a college degree in sociology was a good start, hands-on experience would be needed to become a probation officer.

“I’m sure that message sounds all too familiar, but I am here to tell you don’t let that prevent you from pursuing your dreams,” Maloney said.

For him, that meant forgoing his weekends spent at Slattery’s with friends and getting a weekend position as an adolescent substance-abuse counselor in the spring of his senior year.

That part-time job, he said, led to a full-time position upon graduation. For the first two years after graduation, he worked with drug-addicted teenagers.

“Although it was one of the most rewarding positions I ever held,” he said, he knew he needed to move on.

He sent out applications, including one to the district court in Brockton, He was invited for an interview. However, he said, one week later, he received a letter in the mail saying not only had he not gotten the job but the state of Massachusetts was in a hiring freeze for the foreseeable future.

“To say I was disappointed is an understatement, but I made a decision that day not to sit back and wait for opportunities to come to me,” he said.

He reached out to his roommates from Fitchburg State who were living in Florida, and they began researching probation-officer positions for him.

Within a matter of months, he said, he was hired in Palm Beach County, Fla.

During his time there, he participated in what he calls old-fashioned networking, which included joining and participating in professional organizations.

“Social media is a great tool, but even today there is no substitute for getting out, making new friends, and developing contacts with people that share similar interests as you,” he said. “You never know what is coming next in life and who may be able to help you, or equally important, who you may be able to help.”

He went on to become a U.S. probation officer in Boston, investigating and supervising some of the city’s most notorious felons and working as a regional administrator in Washington, D.C., before becoming the chief U.S. probation officer in New Jersey and then Massachusetts.

Maloney urged graduates to leave time to spend with family and friends as they begin their own journeys after graduation.

“No doubt you’ll make mistakes and occasionally fall down, as we all do, but the people here today are the ones who believe in you and will be there to help get you back on track,” he said. “Your time at Fitchburg State University has prepared you for much more than a career, it has prepared you to live life to its fullest.”

The following awards were presented during the ceremony:

* Joseph P. Flanagan received the Dr. Robert V. and Jeanne S. Antonucci Student Leadership Award.

* Jeremy S. Roche, class of 1995 and current principal at Fitchburg High School, received the Distinguished Alumnus Award.

* Dr. Sean C. Goodlett received the 2014 Dr. Vincent J. Mara Award for Excellence in Teaching.

* Dr. Benjamin A. Railton received the 2014 Faculty Award for Research and Scholarship

* Maloney received an Honorary Degree of Humane Letters.

Follow Katina Caraganis on Tout and Twitter @kcaraganis.

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