AUGUSTA — When Julie Abernathy lined up with her fellow graduates to march into the Civic Center auditorium, it wasn’t only the first time she had seen her classmates — it was her first trip to the East Coast.

Abernathy, 55, lives in Torrington, Wyo., a city of 6,800 near the state’s eastern border, and grew up in Colorado. Since 2011, she has been taking online classes at the University of Maine at Augusta, and she graduated Saturday with a bachelor’s degree in information and library service, an entirely online program.

Even though she’s never met most of the more than 600 UMA students who graduated, Abernathy said she felt a shared sense of accomplishment with the other members of the class of 2015.

“Even being a nontraditional student, you just still really feel a part of it, and it’s been quite wonderful,” Abernathy said. “Quite exciting.”

Abernathy isn’t alone in experiencing her college education online.

Last academic year, more than a third of UMA students completed the majority of their coursework online. Entering the university after joining the workforce or military is even more common at UMA: In 2013, more than 66 percent of students were age 25 or older. In all seven University of Maine System schools, around 60 percent of students were under 25.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, the commencement speaker at Saturday’s ceremony at the Augusta Civic Center, also highlighted the nontraditional nature of many of the university’s students and derided the lack of civility online and in Washington. Around 70 percent of the students in the university’s graduating class had enrolled in college after serving in the military or working, Collins said.

“Whether that described you or whether you came directly from high school, your UMA education has prepared you to be part of that great Maine ethic of people working together to build up, rather than tear down,” she said. “You can make a difference in your communities by elevating the level of discourse, by volunteering and by helping to create a climate where people with opposing ideas are treated with mutual respect and with civility.”

The Republican senator also referenced a personal motto of Alex Haley, the author of “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” saying political and online discourse have become too negative. She said people have forgotten Haley’s powerful motto: “Find the good and praise it.” Collins encouraged the graduating students to elevate the tone of discussions and respect each other.

“Graduates, the diplomas that you receive today represent a great deal of hard work, and my challenge to you, adapted from Alex Haley, is to find the good, praise it and join it,” Collins said.

The message and the reference to Alex Haley’s motto are apparently favorites of the U.S. senator. Collins gave a similar speech to the graduating students of the University of Maine in 2011, using multiple identical passages in both speeches, according to the 2011 speech text posted on her website and news reports at the time.

Collins said that although the Internet has the ability to bring people together, it has done the opposite with online commentary often devoted to negativity and insults.

But for Abernathy, who graduated from UMA without ever putting a foot on the campus, online education allowed her to take classes from Wyoming, work a job at a school teaching Spanish and raise two children.

Abernathy, whose husband, Doug Abernathy, watched her march Saturday, said she would recommend taking classes in person if possible, but that wasn’t an option for her degree in her home state. Online classes gave her both flexibility and an opportunity, she said.

“In a place like Wyoming, our population is so small,” Abernathy said, “it affords people opportunities that they’d never have otherwise.”

Paul Koenig — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @pdkoenig

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