Southeast Arkansas College awarded nearly 400 degrees and certificates to students at its spring graduation ceremony Friday night at the Pine Bluff Convention Center. Located at 1900 S. Hazel St., SEARK is a two-year community college that was founded in 1991.

Students earned degrees in fields ranging from arts, general studies and accounting to business management, computer network technology and criminal justice technology. Other areas included nursing, welding, electro-mechanical maintenance, surgical technology and early childhood paraprofessional technology.

It was one of the last graduations overseen by SEARK President Stephen Hilterbran, who announced his plans to retire Jan. 1. After welcoming the graduates and their friends and family, Hilterbran introduced commencement speaker Maria Markham. Markham is the director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, where, according to a news release, she helps determine funding recommendations for the state's 11 public universities and 22 public two-year colleges.

Markham joked that she knew the graduates did not want to hear a long speech, so she urged them to focus on the three “F's” that are key to future success.

One “F” is failure, she said. Specifically, learning that failure is a healthy byproduct of trying new things.

“I've had many failures, but we aren't here to talk about my ex-husband,” she quipped. “It's what you do during those valleys that will determine the high of those mountain peaks.”

Don't stop failing, she said, but fail better. “Confidence comes from experiencing failure and knowing you can live through it,” she said.

Another “F” crucial to success is fear, she said.

“A key component of wisdom is fearlessness, which is not the act of fear, but not letting fear get in the way,” she said. Often, people are afraid to reach for what seems impossible and “don't dare ask for it.”

“The wonderful things in life lie just outside of fear,” she said. “The fear of falling out of an airplane comes just before experiencing the thrill of skydiving. Let fear be an exciting experience for you.”

Her third “F” to success is “forward,” she said, meaning always continue to move forward in the direction of one's goals.

“Everything you've accomplished is the result of taking action,” Markham said. “Have the courage to follow your heart or intuition to go forward. You're never too old, too young, too poor, too ill or too blonde to keep moving forward.”

She urged the graduates that “it's time to make some mistakes.”

“Make some interesting, fantastic mistakes,” she said. “Fail, learn and repeat.”