NORTH ANDOVER — Elie Ibrahim Ata had three good reasons to be happy yesterday at the Merrimack College graduation.

He became the first member of his family to graduate from college and did so summa cum laude and as a presidential scholar.

"I finally made it," said Ata of Methuen, whose family migrated from Lebanon. "With my drive and initiative I made sure I got ready for a career. That was really important."

Ata was one of 553 students who received bachelor's degrees in business administration, eduction, liberal arts, science and engineering and another 46 people who earned masters of education degrees from Merrimack College.

In addition to the diplomas, Jane D. Parent was chosen as Teacher of the Year. Parent of Bradford, has been at Merrimack since 2006 and is an associate professor in the Girard School of Business and International Commerce.

The ceremony was held at the Volpe Athletic Center where family members and friends on the bleachers cheered and hollered for the graduates, some with air horns and holding posters of their names. Almost every one capturing the moment on their cameras or cell phones.

David McGillivray of North Andover, who 36 years ago addressed his class as valedictorian president, returned as graduation speaker for the Class of 2012. "Life is a marathon, not a sprint," said McGillivray race director of the Boston Marathon for the past 23 years.. "You're at the starting line and you truly earned that spot."

McGillivray told fellow graduates three words of advice, set a goal, make a plan and accomplish it.

"It comes down to what you love and make a difference," McGillivray said. "Don't wait, do it now. When you give, you receive more in return."

MaryRose Mazzola of Chelmsford was student speaker. Quoting St. Augustine, she encourage alumni to conquer themselves.

"I also hope and sincerely believe that in the past four years, you've learned to conquer yourself, learn your strengths and weaknesses and start to love the person you have become."

Mazzola deferred acceptance to a master's program at Georgetown University Public Policy Institute to be campaign manager for Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover.

"Merrimack has given us the gift to enlighten our mind. It is our duty to share them," said Mazzola, Rhodes Scholar finalist. "The journey is endless and so are the possibilities."

The speakers talked about determination and never perseverance up.

Julissa Cruz can attest to that.

While attending Merrimack College, she became pregnant with her daughter Jaslene Ortiz, now 3, and due to her determination and support from fellow students and teachers was able to continue.

"It wasn't an option not to go on. I thought of my daughter and knew I wanted a better future for her," said Cruz who graduated cum laude with a degree in psychology.

Frank Rosich and Lilliana Perez flew from Costa Rica to see their son, Juan Carlos Rosich, get a bachelor's degree in business, cum laude, with a concentration in fiance. Standing at 7-feet tall, Juan Carlos played on the Merrimack's basketball team during the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 seasons.

"The most memorable day was when I cleaned up my locker," he said. "There were so many memories there. I took down my name tag, which I'll keep forever."

At Merrimack, Juan Carlos Rosich said he made friends from Asia, Europe and South America.

"It taught me to have an open mind to other cultures," he said.

Alexandra L. Gallant of Methuen earned a degree in mathematics and secondary education.

"I didn't just learn math, but I grew as a person to go to the next step in my life," said Gallant, who is returning to school to pursue a master's in psychology. "Coming here, gave me the life stills to be the best."

Students like Gallant and Gary Mannion Jr. of Lawrence consider senior week one of the best memorable of their years at Merrimack.

"It really brought the class together by having time to just spend it with each other," Gallant said.

Mannion, who ran for City Council in Lawrence, studied political science at Merrimack College

"It prepared me for the future by showing me what lies ahead and branch out in the political world," Mannion said.

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Honorary doctorate degrees

Doctor of health science: Dr. Alfred L. Arcidi of Haverhill, graduated from Merrimack College in 1953. He set up a dentistry practice in Lawrence. In 1982, he bought two chronic care hospitals which later became Whittier Rehab Hospital in Haverhill and Port Rehab Nursing Home.

Doctor of Augustinian education: Rev. George F. Riley, a Lawrence native, is special assistant to the president of the University for alumni and External Affairs at Villanova University. Doctor of Public service: David McGillivray, race director of the Boston Marathon.

Doctor of education: Dr. Patricia Meservey, president of Salem State University.

Doctor of Public Service: Brian C. Mitchell, chairman of the Merrimack College board of trustee