Graduation season begins when thousands receive degrees from the University of Southern Maine

Paul Thiemens, 64, of Gorham, knows the names of hundreds of students who graduated Saturday from the University of Southern Maine. He makes a point of remembering and saluting them in his work in the Portland school’s McGoldrick Center food court. He beamed and clapped as they walked across the Cross Insurance Arena stage.

“I saw some of these students two weeks ago, and they were so stressed,” he said. But they weren’t the only ones. “Last night I filed my final papers.”

Thiemens not only works full-time at the university. On Saturday he graduated summa cum laude with his own bachelor’s degree in leadership and organizational sciences.

“I talk to all the students and they are so excited,” he said. “I thought, why don’t you go up and take some classes?”

Isabella St. Cyr smiles at the crowd after receiving her degree in classical voice performance during the University of Southern Maine’s 144th Commencement on Saturday at Cross Insurance Arena. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

This weekend marked the start of graduation season across the state. The University of Maine system conferred thousands of degrees during ceremonies in Orono, Augusta, Farmington, Fort Kent, Presque Isle, Portland and Machias. More than 6,100 students are eligible to graduate this year, but not everyone will participate in the ceremonies. More than 100 will receive an associate degree, and 4,600 a bachelor’s degree. Another 1,350 will earn a master’s or doctoral degree. The law school will graduate 85 students.

Colleges across the country are preparing for protests over Israel’s war in Gaza, but school officials in Maine said they don’t expect any major disruptions. Students here have taken stands against the war, including demonstrating and calling on their schools to divest their defense funds. Events and efforts to speak out are ongoing and are causing some tension with administrators over the role of the institutions in calling for peace.

Last month, a protest on the USM campus in Portland drew about 30 people for a peaceful demonstration that did not result in any arrests. Maine Students for Palestine, which includes students from schools across the state, organized that event and one on Saturday afternoon at Deering Oaks Park. But Saturday morning’s commencement for USM graduates was as usual with pomp and circumstance.

USM President Jacqueline Edmonson congratulated the students on receiving their degrees under extraordinary circumstances.

“You lived through a global pandemic,” she said. “You were confronted with the reality of systemic racism and civil unrest in the United States. You continued to persevere in times of political and economic uncertainty. You faced personal challenges, and in October we had the tragic event in Lewiston that impacted our community in devastating ways, and here you are. You have pursued your educational goals and you have unwavering hope for a new and better future.”

University of Southern Maine student speaker Hamido Hassan addresses the class of 2024 during the 144th Commencement on Saturday at Cross Insurance Arena. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

This year’s student speaker was Hamido Hassan, who graduated with a master’s degree in counseling with a concentration in clinical mental health counseling. Born in a Kenyan refugee camp to Somali parents, she spoke of her gratitude for the opportunities she received when she moved to Maine at the age of six. She challenged her colleagues to support others now in the ways they have been supported to get to this point.

“Self-doubt is a universal language spoken by many, especially in the halls of academia,” says Hassan. “It’s the nagging voice that asks, ‘Can I really participate? Am I smart enough? Do I belong here?’ Yet here we are. We are a testament to the resilience that lies within each of us in moments of self-doubt. It was the power of community that turned whispers of uncertainty into shouts of triumph. It was the professors, coaches, mentors, supervisors and family members who saw our potential, even when we couldn’t see it ourselves.”

Graduates also heard from Tom Caron, studio host for the Red Sox broadcast on NESN and columnist for the Portland Press Herald. He held up a folder full of rejection letters from his early career; he has kept them for more than 40 years.

“It’s easy now to look back on all these letters and see that they were part of a journey, but at the time it all felt like the end of the road,” he said. “My career was coming to an end. But this is the secret I want you to remember as you leave today and enter the dreaded, so-called real world. If you receive these letters, you will learn much more about yourself than if you are successful. The question is: can you put those lessons into practice?”

When it was time to hand out the diplomas, officials took a moment to recognize three generations of the same family who graduated Saturday. Tanner Meserve, 22, earned a bachelor’s degree in health sciences as part of the occupational therapy accelerated pathway. His mother, 45-year-old Melissa Meserve, graduated with her master’s degree in adult and higher education. And his grandmother, 66-year-old Brenda Plummer, also took home her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, with minors in psychology and advocacy.

“We have huge conversations at night,” Melissa Meserve said in a story published by the university. “Everyone comes home: ‘And what did you learn today?’ ”

As the graduates left Cross Insurance Arena, they celebrated with cheers and shouts. Their supporters in the crowd took photos and delivered bouquets of flowers. Sydney Franks, 22, was among the students who had been waiting for this moment for a long time; her 2020 high school diploma was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the big day, she crocheted a bright yellow decorative square for her beret. She added a sparkling message: “May the Fourth be with us! – a tribute to her classmates and to ‘Star Wars’. She planned to have lunch with her family and see a showing of “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” later in the afternoon to celebrate. (The band also played the Star Wars theme as the students left the building.)

“It’s been an amazing journey,” said Franks, who is originally from Brownfield. “This is my first real graduation. I feel on top of the world.”

Thiemens said his wife, Bonnie, encouraged him to go back to school to finish the degree he gave up years ago. He planned to celebrate with his family — he has six children and seven grandchildren — but he’s not done yet. He will continue at USM to obtain his master’s degree. As he looked at his classmates with a smile on his face, a student ran over to give him a hug.

“Michel!” Thiemens said in greeting.

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