PRESQUE ISLE, Maine – Students graduating from the University of Maine at Près Isle during the most intense years of the COVID pandemic have finally had the chance to put on a cap and gown and walk alongside their peers Saturday.
Class of 2020 and 2021 members were among 245 graduates honored at UMPI’s first in-person ceremony since 2019. For those with ties to Aroostook County, the day marked the first time that they could celebrate in a more traditional, non-virtual way with family, friends, classmates and teachers.
Jessica Meir, a Caribou native and NASA astronaut, delivered a surprise video message, calling 2022 “a truly remarkable year.” Graduates from all three classes have not only proven their resilience, but have embarked on paths to achieve their goals.
“Congratulations to all of you,” Meir said. “May the wings of the snowy owl take you on the most magnificent flight that will surely be your future.”
Brooke Hallett, a Saco native and 2020 graduate of UMPI’s business administration program, was living on campus in March 2020 when the campus closed and sent students home to complete the semester online. Just two months before graduation, she had to say goodbye to her friends and teachers and return to southern Maine.
“I was actually sitting in this library, working on a paper, when I got the email saying I had to leave,” Hallett said Saturday. “It was a very rushed goodbye. Within 24 hours my parents had to come and take me home.
Since earning her bachelor’s degree, Hallett has worked for Wellness Connection of Maine, which operates cannabis retail stores and dispensaries across the state. This year, she earned her Masters in Organizational Leadership from UMPI’s online program.
Hallett County connections motivated her to walk earlier this year. Most of her family lives in Mars Hill and she is also a member of the Houlton Band of Maliseets. It may be two years later, but now she and her family can celebrate.
“In 2020, my family planned a party, but now that I’m here, we can finally do it,” Hallett said.
Saturday’s start also marked the first time 2020 graduate Katherine Desjardins of Bangor had ever seen the UMPI campus.
Desjardins earned her her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UMPI online while working two full-time jobs and raising three children. She works for a software company based in Bangor and is working on a doctorate in business administration with a focus on strategic innovation.
Although Desjardins was already getting her bachelor’s degree virtually when COVID started, she was disappointed not to meet and walk alongside her classmates. After a long wait, she and her husband, Alain Desjardins, were delighted to celebrate with the family at Aroostook.
“It was definitely weird not having a ceremony. [in 2020]said Desjardins. “Because I’ve never done anything like this, I wanted to see if I could meet people who had done the [degree] program. I’m really excited to be here.
On Saturday’s back-to-school, university leaders and special guests recognized how the resilience of students like Hallett and Desjardins has helped them earn degrees despite the challenges of the pandemic.
Resilience was the theme of remarks from honorary degree recipients Don and Linda Zillman.
Don Zillman was president of UMPI from 2006 to 2012 and held leadership positions at other campuses in the University of Maine system before retiring in 2019. His wife Linda was an arts and l higher education in Maine, having served on the board of Portland Ballet and the Alliance Board of the Art Museum, now the Zillman Art Museum, on the Bangor UMaine campus.
Linda Zillman said that of all the campuses they have lived in, she and her husband enjoyed being part of the UMPI the most. She reminded students of the many unique opportunities they had while earning their degrees.
“The words ‘teacher’ and ‘mentor’ describe many faculty members at small colleges, but at UMPI, faculty don’t just share knowledge, they create new knowledge. They allow students to work alongside them in research,” she said. “It’s a rare thing in universities in this country.”
Don Zillman turned his attention to the many global challenges of the past three years, including climate change, political divisions and COVID. He encouraged the students to do their part to address similar challenges in their communities and to remember how their UMPI years shaped them in these endeavors.
“We’re not asking you to take on all of these challenges, but please make supporting this wonderful institution, the University of Maine atPres Isle, part of what you do.” he declared.