AUGUSTA — One is a traditional-age college student, the other is older.
One has a natural affinity for numbers, the other had to get over intimidation about math.
One is focused on public policy, the other is working to launch two private businesses.
As different as they are, Alyra Donisvitch and Ron Cohen also have a lot in common as soon-to-be graduates of the University of Maine at Augusta.
The two will be recognized for their academic achievement, extracurricular leadership and community service with the Distinguished Student Award at Commencement on Saturday.
Donisvitch, 23, of Manchester, studied social science and psychology and hopes to continue working for the Maine Centers for Women, Work and Community.
Cohen, 34, of Boothbay Harbor, accumulated enough credits during several years at UMA to complete two majors, management and accounting, and a minor in biology. He is a staff sergeant in the Maine National Guard.
They will be among more than 650 students to receive degrees at Saturday’s Commencement, which is scheduled for 10 a.m. at the Augusta Civic Center. Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty will be the keynote speaker at the ceremony.
PROFESSORS MAKE THE DIFFERENCE
Donisvitch said her feelings about graduation are evolving as the ceremony approaches.
“I’m starting to become excited,” she said. “At first I was like, âOh, but I love school, I don’t know if I’m really ready for this to be over.’ But now I’ve got my cap and gown.”
Donisvitch spent a year at Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired school in Colorado, before returning to Maine for family and lifestyle reasons.
UMA was a convenient and comfortable option, familiar to Donisvitch from taking a few courses there while being homeschooled in Augusta, but she wasn’t sure if it would be a long-term fit because she perceived it as a commuter school filled with other students.
Donisvitch said she came to appreciate the mix in the student body of older students and teenagers fresh from high school. She also was influenced to stay at UMA by faculty members who engaged individually with their students.
Donisvitch gives particular credit to social science professor Lorien Lake-Corral, whose sociology classes fascinated and challenged Donisvitch, and lecturer Rita Lachance, who taught the first math class she took at UMA.
Even though it was an introductory math class, Donisvitch was apprehensive because she thought she was weak in the subject. But with Lachance’s help, “it just clicked,” Donisvitch said, and at the end of the semester she tested so well that she skipped directly to statistics, a course she needed as a social sciences major.
The things Donisvitch learned at UMA about statistical analysis and structures in society informed her work at Women, Work and Community, where she began in a work-study job more than two years ago.
Over time, she’s filled lots of different roles there. She has administrative duties, does social media and communications work, helped prepare the first annual report on the Status of Women and Girls in Maine and has guided people through the signup process for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
One of her favorite roles, however, has involved working with the ambassadors, people who have completed Women, Work and Community’s business or person development programs and want to become leaders in their communities. Donisvitch coordinated a day for the ambassadors at the State House, connecting them with their legislators and helping them learn effective advocacy.
“That is inspiring, and I always get to feel that there’s a direct relationship between our work and people’s lives actually changing,” Donisvitch said. “So that’s fantastic.”
Women, Work and Community Executive Director Gilda Nardone, who nominated Donisvitch for the Distinguished Student Award, said she has seen Donisvitch develop so much in her understanding of public policy and the policymaking process.
“We’ve both seen her emerge as a leader in her own right, but she’s also then encouraging other people to do that as well,” Nardone said.
Even though Women, Work and Community is part of UMA, Nardone said many students don’t know about it, and Donisvitch has helped bridge the gap, particularly because she understands how to target information to busy students.
She has also become a useful resource for the center’s sister organizations, such as the Coalition for Maine Women, because she has a positive attitude and always follows through on what she says she’s going to do, Nardone said.
Donisvitch said she wants to do policy and advocacy work and may run for the Legislature someday.
“There’s so many different needs out there,” she said. “I feel a passion toward helping women and families, but I also feel strongly and adamantly about all these others, whether it be reproductive rights or access to health insurance. Those are all things that are important to me.”
A LONG TIME COMING
Just as Donisvitch hopes to do, Cohen will keep working where he is after graduation.
Cohen has been in the National Guard for 17 years, first enlisting when he was in high school in Iowa. He served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005.
Cohen has been working as a financial services technician at Camp Keyes and will start a job this week as a program analyst. He said he doesn’t know exactly what his new job will entail, but it may include human resources, budgeting and program evaluation work that could be informed by his studies at UMA.
Cohen took a winding path to graduation.
“This is a long, long, long time coming,” he said.
He started college in 1998 at Iowa State University, studying business. Not long after moving to Maine six years ago, he met his wife, Juliette, a nurse, and enrolled in UMA’s nursing program. The plan was for them to work together as traveling nurses.
After a couple of years, however, he started missing business classes and changed programs.
“It’s the way my mind works, I guess,” he said. “I like to take time to analyze things and solve problems. And with nursing, you have to be Johnny on the spot and make those quick decisions. You may have to decide quickly in business, but it’s not life and death.”
Cohen said his instructors at UMA were top-notch, working around his military training schedule and pushing him to reach farther.
Barbara Rowell, for example, encouraged Cohen to enter the UMaine Business Challenge and then provided insight and advice that helped him and his wife to win second place in the competition for entrepreneurs.
“It’s because of that kind of dedication to students that I love this school and highly recommend it to others,” Cohen said.
Rowell, who taught Cohen in two semesters of accounting and an auditing class, nominated him for the Distinguished Student award. She said he’s kind, funny and a hard worker.
Cohen worked as a teaching assistant for Rowell, helping her correct student work because she teaches about 200 students per semester, and as a research assistant, putting data from student surveys into spreadsheets so it could be analyzed in different ways.
While some students don’t put in the work required to succeed, that was never an issue with Cohen, Rowell said. Even though he works full time and has a long drive from home to campus, he always did his homework, came to class and asked good questions.
Over the course of months, Rowell reviewed and offered what she said was blunt feedback on the plans Cohen and his wife were developing for a business called Above and Beyond Scheduling. The company will be a liaison between people who need caregiving to stay in their homes and nurses and other professionals who can provide the necessary services. For placing second in the UMaine Business Challenge, they’ll receive $1,000 and consulting services to get the business off the ground.
Juliette Cohen will run Above and Beyond Scheduling, while Ron is starting a complementary payroll service that will collect payment from clients and pay the caregivers, who will be contractors. Cohen said he also has another client in the works for the payroll service.
Cohen plans to stay in the military and he said his college education opens the door to becoming an officer. He also wants to sit for the certified professional accountant exam and may eventually go to law school, which he said multiple people have recommended for him.
It’s ambitious, but Rowell said she has confidence in him.
“I think he’ll do it,” she said. “He tends to be exceedingly tenacious.”
Once he becomes an alumnus, Cohen hopes to help build networks to connect future business and accounting students to jobs, mentors and investors. He was a founder and the first president of the UMA Accounting Society and Business Club, which has about 80 members.
The importance of having such a club quickly became evident, Cohen said. On a tour of Bangor companies last year, they met with leaders of a prominent accounting firm who hadn’t known that UMA even had an accounting program.