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Taylor Lay never thought she'd graduate from the University of Utah.

Earning a degree is daunting, the Riverton native said, and the university's Milton Bennion Hall was practically her home during her years as a student.

On Thursday, Lay prepared to say goodbye to that home as she joined thousands of her fellow graduates at the university's commencement ceremonies.

"It is very bittersweet," Lay said. "I'm not going to miss the stress, but I will miss the college life."

For Paige Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation, Thursday's ceremony was a milestone in, but not the end of, her academic career.

The health promotions and education major said she plans to enroll in graduate school and complete a master of public health program.

She said she'll miss the campus events, like concerts and athletics, and the support of the University of Utah's American Indian Resource Center.

"That's a really great place," she said, "that has really great couches for naps."

A total of 8,291 students graduated from the University of Utah this year, ranging in age from 17 years old to 73 years old.

Graduates earned a combined 8,761 degrees, including 2,175 master's degrees and 955 doctoral degrees.

The university also awarded four honorary degrees, to businessmen Kem Gardner and George Smith, scientist Kirk Ririe and philanthropist Lynette Nielsen Gay.

Gay's selection for an honorary degree was met with backlash from students and faculty, who objected to her work with two groups — World Congress of Families and Family Watch International — that advocate for marriages comprising one male and one female, and oppose rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.

The controversy prompted Gay to resign from the board of directors of World Congress of Families, but about 25 graduates stood and turned their backs while she received her honorary degree during Thursday's commencement ceremony.

Students and their families arriving at the University's Jon M. Huntsman Center were greeted by about 10 protesters chanting "Stand up, fight back," "Shame on the U." and "Hey hey, ho ho, this homophobe has got to go."

Hayven Jackson, of Park City, was one such protester.

"They've chosen to side with someone who has led, who has served on the board of hate groups," Jackson said, "that want to see queer people, like myself, dead."

The controversy surrounding Gay's honorary degree was not addressed by speakers during the commencement ceremony.

Charles Koronkowski, this year's student speaker, encouraged graduates to "embrace the cliche" of commencement, and to maintain the ideals, hopes and ambitions they gained at the university.

"The world has enough cynics; it does not need another," he said. "Do not allow the limited imaginations of others to bind you."

In her keynote address, Anne-Marie Slaughter focused on the role that family and caring play in professional success.

Slaughter — CEO of the public policy institute New America and author of "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" — said people should not let work and family pull them in opposite directions.

"None of you would be sitting here without your families," she told the graduates. "Family, in its many incarnations, is not the thing that you have to struggle to make time for as you reach for the stars. Family is the foundation of your ability to thrive."

And as machines advance to fill more of the traditional roles of human workers, she said, emotion and heart will become increasingly valuable in the economy.

"What humans will bring are the traits of our heart," she said, "the traits that cannot be programmed into hardware."

University of Utah President David Pershing encouraged graduates to "write their own headlines," rather than be weighed down by news of shrinking opportunity and economic uncertainty.

He spoke of his own baccalaureate graduation, during the Vietnam War, and said he found opportunities during an uncertain time that put him on a path to becoming a university president.

"Every generation before you has had big concerns," he said "And each has gone on to aid the progression of society through individual actions."

He said all of the graduates share years of late nights, early mornings, personal sacrifice and "sheer tenacity."

"You leave this campus proudly recognized as graduates of the University of Utah," he said.