AUGUSTA — It’s an extra-special Mother’s Day weekend for Kathy Trask, who got to watch her daughter graduate from college Saturday.
Nicole Trask, 24, of Hallowell, earned a bachelor’s degree in mental health and human services from the University of Maine at Augusta. She plans to work with adolescents in foster care to help reunite them with their biological parents.
“I’m very proud of her,” Kathy Trask said before the commencement ceremony. “I have tissues on me. I have already needed them.”
“She already got me crying once today,” Nicole Trask said.
The daughter wasn’t the only Trask in a cap and gown Saturday morning. Her mother, who is the associate director of admissions at UMA, also was graduating, with a master of science degree in adult and higher education from the University of Southern Maine. She got permission to receive her degree at UMA’s commencement to share the occasion with her daughter.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Nicole Trask said. “We tried to plan it out where we could finish at the same time, so we could march together and have one day.”
About 650 people graduated from all branches of UMA on Saturday, including the campuses in Augusta and Bangor and the University College centers scattered around the state.
Student speaker Karl Shadlich, a graduate of the architecture program, said he discovered his ability to overcome adversity in his previous life as an airport firefighter in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he sometimes didn’t know what to do in an emergency situation. He took what he learned in those situations to revise training for the department.
Something similar happened when he gave presentations of his architecture projects. He said he learned something from the critique and discussion every time, whether he went in with a strong project or not, and he learned to view criticism as a means to improve, not an attack.
“If I can pass anything along, it would be this: Failure is a process, and to let fear have control of this process is detrimental to your true potential,” Shadlich said. “It is OK to be afraid but not to be inactive because of it. We cannot possibly learn from the actions we never take, only from those we do.”
The keynote speaker was another veteran, Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty, who has two degrees from UMA.
After growing up poor, with a mother who had four children by the time she was 22 and a father who was convicted of several felonies, the U.S. Army and UMA allowed Liberty to rise above those beginnings. In both institutions, previous social status didn’t matter, and hard work and dedication led to advancement, he said.
Education has had transformational power for Liberty, his three brothers and his wife, and he sees the same thing with inmates at the Kennebec County jail, who often lack formal education but can use it to turn their lives around.
Liberty said he starts each day by reading the newspaper, including the obituaries, and reflects on his own life. He asks himself whether he cares for the people around him as he should and whether he’s doing meaningful work that will make the world a better place.
“These are the questions that I ask myself each day as I read the obituaries,” Liberty said. “What will my obituary read? How about yours? What will your legacy be? Will it be one of selfless service and sacrifice, or will it be something else?”
He said some of the graduates are following career paths that will allow them to serve the public every day, but others will need to seek out opportunities deliberately to help others.
He encouraged them to find out the most urgent problems in their communities, work to address them and always prepare themselves for the next opportunity.
“Remember that leaders are lifelong learners,” Liberty said. “Although you are graduating today, remember, you must continue to grow and learn. When the window of opportunity opens, you must be prepared, or you will be left behind.”
Saturday’s graduates already have provided themselves with new opportunities, said Nathan Grant, president of the UMA Alumni Association, by pushing through the challenges of balancing school with work, family and friends.
“A college education does not just imbue one with knowledge, teach skills or strategies for thinking,” he said. “A college education provides us opportunities to become better people through testing our abilities to cope with new challenges. As many of you already know, plenty of challenges await you in the world.”
Many of the graduates had long paths to the commencement stage, such as Erin Beth Hustus, 34, a mother of two from Rockland.
Hustus received a bachelor’s degree in mental health and human services and plans to become a caseworker and eventually a licensed clinic social worker, according to her sister, Shel Marcotte. It took Hustus several years to graduate, and she earned an associate degree along the way.
Marcotte said her sister is “all about helping people,” inspired by her own experiences with medical care to want to help other people get connected to resources for dealing with their medical needs. Hustus also is active in several nonprofit organizations in the Rockland area, Marcotte said.
Nineteen members of her family attended the commencement, some from as far away as Connecticut.
“We’re very proud of her, and we’re super-excited that she’s graduating with honors,” Marcotte said.
Lawrence Surrette, of Millinockett, said his 25-year-old daughter, Valerie Surrette, faced her share of struggles during the six years it took her to earn to a dental hygiene degree. She missed time in school because of injuries and surgeries but persevered and now plans to work in southern Maine.
“She made it back in, and I’m very proud of her,” Surrette said.