The graduates of Greens Farms Academy left the protective walls of their Westport school Thursday morning and headed out into the world -- their metaphysical backpacks filled with what they need to make their own mistakes, to make their own decisions and to succeed, as Salutatorian Emma Frank put it in her speech.

Frank, 18, of Norwalk, told the academy's 86th commencement that the school helped prepare the 71 graduates well for the real world.

Commencement speaker Stephen Kinzer, an author and award-winning foreign correspondent who has covered stories in more than 50 nations on five continents, told the graduates the world is a different place from what it was a few decades ago, but also said this generation is uniquely prepared for it.

Kinzer said his generation grew up with certainties, including an assumption that life would always get better. He said Americans tend to believe the rest of the world should follow their country's formula for freedom and success. "The temptation is to think we know more ... to spread our ideas and let everyone else assimilate them," he said.

But, he added, humility is a great asset for people who have been given great opportunities -- and for nations, too. Kinzer told the graduates they have the ability and humility to make a difference in the world. He said one of their greatest challenges will be to manage the global decline of America, and he reminded them there is nothing more interesting than to meet people different from you.

"Maintain your global engagement. Allow yourself to learn and listen," Kinzer said.

The global theme was carried throughout the graduation ceremony, which took place on the front lawn of the academy, where hundreds of proud relatives, friends and school staff futilely fanned themselves with the commencement program in search of relief from the stifling heat. Occasionally, a welcome breeze circulated across the campus from nearby Long Island Sound, but the breezes were too gentle to offer much respite.

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Valedictorian Allison Corinna Kruk, 17, of Easton, encouraged fellow Greens Farms graduates to mold themselves into whatever they desire, to experience incredible personal growth but also to "maintain a social consciousness of the world around us, returning to our roots in our common human existence."

"We cannot afford to lock ourselves away in an ivory tower, separated from the beauty, diversity and challenges of society. Rather, in the spirit of true humanitarianism, with empathy, with sincerity and compassion, we must utilize our extraordinary talents to affect positive change," Kruk said.

She held up as an example Albert Einstein, a Nobel Award-winning scientist "whose theories have persisted for decades in the face of intense technical scrutiny." But he was also a staunch civil-rights activist who lobbied against lynchings and campaigned against hate crimes, Kruk said.

"Einstein used his exceptional talent to create a connection with his community, persistently advocating for social justice," she said.

Donald George, of New Haven, the uncle of graduate Christian Smith, of Stratford, said he was impressed with the world view of the speakers and of the advice Kinzer shared with students. George is a native of Sierra Leone who came to the United States to work for Amistad America.

"They might have a job outside the U.S. How are they going to adjust to the cultures and traditions of other countries outside the U.S., if they are not exposed to people different from themselves," George said.

Ali Rouatt, 18, of Westport, said she will take what she learned at Greens Farms Academy and use it in the outside world.

"Although we are very accomplished, we haven't earned everything," said Rex Tavello, 18, of Fairfield. "We have to recognize where we came from, the opportunities we were given and that we are very fortunate compared to the rest of the world."

Travis Miyashiro, 18, of Redding, was a symbol of the wider world that figured so prominently in the ceremony. He wore a lei of red carnations that his parents gave him. "Both my parents are from Hawaii," he said. Miyashiro also gave a nut-and-shell lei to his school advisor, Betsy Bergeron.

"It's a little bittersweet. I've been here for seven years and I'm leaving friends behind, but it's a real proud moment for me, too" Miyashiro said.