Gov. Janet Mills told University of Southern Maine graduates on Saturday to be “ambassadors” for Maine in their post-college lives but also urged them to stay – or eventually come back – to “a world of opportunity right here.”
“There is so much to explore, so much to do, so many people to meet, and so many budding businesses and enterprises waiting for you to cross their threshold – and make your mark here in Maine,” Mills said.
Maine’s first female governor delivered the keynote remarks to more than 900 newly minted undergraduate and graduate degree holders on Saturday during USM’s 139th commencement in Portland. As the ceremony began, the flags of nearly three dozen countries were marched into the Cross Insurance Arena to highlight the international pedigree of the graduates.
Among those international transplants was Yanina Nickless, a Ukrainian native who witnessed both the inspiring solidarity but also the pain and suffering of that country’s “Revolution of Dignity” in 2013 and 2014. When Nickless came to USM three years ago, she found further inspiration in the many students whose diverse backgrounds, life experiences and hardships were “pushing us all this time to new achievements.”
“It is our time for action,” Nickless, a political science undergraduate, told the audience. “Let’s embrace our past. Let’s accept our uniqueness. And let’s lead into the brightest future without wars and hate, because that is what USM taught all of us to do.”
More than a half-dozen colleges and universities across Maine held commencement ceremonies on Saturday.
At Unity College, quadruple-amputee Travis Mills told graduates that because it is impossible to change the past, it’s important to keep looking forward. Mills, a retired Army staff sergeant who lost all four of his limbs in an explosion in Afghanistan, now brings war-wounded veterans to Maine for retreats as part of his Travis Mills Foundation.
Mills told graduates to remember that they can control their attitude even when they can’t control their circumstances.
“No matter what, life goes on,” Mills said, according to The Associated Press. “It’s going to always get better if you make it that way.”
Speaking in Bangor, Maine Sen. Susan Collins urged Husson University graduates to “help us to restore a sense of community, civility and unity in our great country.” Collins, a Republican often regarded as a potential swing vote on contentious issues in the closely divided Senate, said hyper-partisanship and tribalism threatens the bonds that have characterized and strengthened the country.
And like Gov. Mills, Collins also challenged Husson’s grads to begin the next phase of their lives in Maine.
“Please stay in Maine,” Collins said to loud applause inside the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. “Our state needs your energy, your enthusiasm and the education that you’ve worked so hard to achieve at Husson. If you are going out of state or back to your native land, consider it to be a temporary assignment until you return to the great state of Maine.”
At Saint Joseph’s College in Standish, the commencement ceremony was also a chance for university administrators to unveil their new costume for the school’s mascot, the Monk. Saint Joseph’s is the only NCAA school to have a monk as a mascot, reflecting both the college’s Roman Catholic affiliation and history.
“When you’re a U.S. Marine, you remember and continue to live everything that it stands for. And when you’re a Monk, it’s also symbolic and meaningful for life,” Dr. Colonel Solis, a Saint Joseph’s alumnus and board of trustee member who provided funding for the mascot redesign, said in a statement. “A mascot elevates the spirit of the entire student community on campus. I’m very pleased to give back to the College.”
At the Augusta Civic Center, newspaper editor Judith Meyer addressed about 350 graduates and over 1,000 attendees at the University of Maine at Augusta’s 51st commencement. The academic theme of UMA’s school year was “freedom of speech.”
“This is your charge today: Go forth and right injustices,” said Meyer, executive editor of the Sun Journal, the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel and seven Maine weekly newspapers.
“Every person here has been helped by speech,” she said. “I recognize each of you as ambassadors of the First Amendment.”
“Use your voice, alone and together, for the common good,” she added.
Back in Portland, at least one USM graduate received a ring as well as her undergraduate degree.
Bob Bujakera, a U.S. Army mechanic on Apache helicopters, gave a promise ring to Gloria Ngama before he deployed to South Korea with his unit. The couple also traveled to Congo to participate in some of their native country’s pre-marriage traditions.
But Bujakera surprised his fiancee on Saturday by waiting for her at the bottom of stairs as she walked off the stage with her degree. Wearing his Army dress uniform, Bujakera hugged Ngama and then got down on one knee to present her with a ring symbolizing their engagement but also her graduation from college.
Spectators in the nearby stands cheered and snapped pictures when they realized what was happening.
“Although we were planning to get married soon, I wanted to honor her with the ring,” said Bujakera, who will deploy to Afghanistan later this year.
Maine is facing both a “demographic winter” due to its aging population and a brain drain as many young people move elsewhere for jobs or to raise families.
Addressing the USM grads, Gov. Mills talked about how she, too, left her native Maine on a college and career path that took her across the U.S. and to Europe. But that “crooked line” of a path eventually led Mills back to Maine, where she enrolled at the University of Maine School of Law.
Mills recalled how she was often “the only woman in the room” as she pursued her career as a prosecutor, district attorney, assistant attorney general and eventually attorney general. And having such memories “makes me stand taller,” Mills said.
Last November, Mills made history again by winning the race for governor. As she spoke, Mills repeatedly used the “Welcome home” phrase that has become a theme of her first five months in office.
She also urged the graduates to tell others about the uniqueness and beauty of Maine – with its rocky coastline, forests, rolling hills and clean waters – whether they stay put or go elsewhere with their degrees.
“Whether you are from here, from another state or from another country and whether you intend to leave and come back, or not leave at all, I hope your future includes the state of Maine,” Mills said. “And may you share my passion for this place and all of its people.”
“There is a world of opportunity right here,” Mills said. “We want you here. But if you leave, I wish you well. But when you come back, I’ll be there to say, ‘Welcome home.’”
Staff Writer Sam Shepherd of the Kennebec Journal contributed to this report.