AUGUSTA — When Kay O’Brien was growing up in Southwest Harbor, her family didn’t have enough money to send her college. After a 47-year nursing career, O’Brien is one of nearly 450 students who received degrees Saturday morning during the University of Maine at Augusta’s 48th commencement at the Augusta Civic Center.

O’Brien, 79, retired from nursing and took a computer class after buying a new computer, and she was hooked. It took her 12 years to complete her Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal studies, and she is the second-oldest student ever to graduate from UMA. She sat intently and listened to each speaker from her seat at the end of the third row.

“Anybody that wants to do this should, because it’s very gratifying,” said O’Brien, who started at UMA in a 2002 computer class after retiring from nursing and buying a new computer. “It’s been a long trek, but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

Family and friends of graduates who took classes at UMA’s Augusta and Bangor campuses, online and at University College centers filled the stands during the two-hour-and-15-minute ceremony, which was led by UMA President James Conneely. Conneely, who became president in January, estimated he’s attended close to 100 graduations throughout his 30-plus year educational career.

“They’re all special because you have the opportunity to see students who’ve worked hard to get through, and their families are so proud,” Conneely said before the ceremony began. “Once of the reasons I came here is because we really do make a difference in a lot of people’s lives. It’s what we’re all about.”

Brittany Hanson, 29, who received her associate degree in nursing during the ceremony and is working toward a bachelor’s, addressed fellow graduates about how anybody can make an impact on the world, regardless of profession.

“You don’t have to be a nurse to make a difference,” Hanson said. “Every person, every chosen profession present here has the ability to make a meaningful impact in someone’s life.” Hanson, of Fairfield, has two children and will begin her nursing career in the intensive care unit at MaineGeneral Medical Center.

UMA prides itself on having a diverse student population, with an estimated 80 percent of the graduates being of nontraditional age, and the floor of the Civic Center highlighted the school’s diversity. Graduates of all ages, including those of traditional college age, mid-life adult learners, career changers and those already receiving retirement and Social Security checks, packed the floor and heard hoots and hollers from those in the stands cheering them on. The graduates responded with waves and other gestures during the nearly 15-minute processional.

Robert Dana Ambrose, 61, received his bachelor’s degree in financial services after starting school in 1981. He took several years of classes before stopping to help raise a family while his wife completed her master’s degree. He decided to change majors when he returned to school in 2006 and took a class each year in order to graduate.

“If you look up perseverance in the dictionary, there’s a picture of me,” Ambrose said. Ambrose said college is much tougher than when he first started in the early 1980s because of all the additional information students receive.

“I took a computer class, and one of the questions on the test was about turning the computer on,” Ambrose said. “Now my computer course has a textbook with nearly 400 pages. The amount of information you are getting is 200, 300 percent more than before.”

During his opening remarks, Conneely asked first-generation graduates — the first in their families to get a college degree — as well as military personnel and veterans to stand to be recognized, and more than 50 graduates stood and received rousing applause from the several thousand in attendance.

Keynote speaker Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, called the graduates the stars of the show before telling a 52-year-old story about the appropriation of $55,000 to start a branch of the state university in Augusta. Katz, a high school sophomore at the time, watched his father, Bennett, present the bill that planted the seed of UMA.

Katz used his remarks to spotlight three graduates who came to earn their degrees via completely different paths.

Dori Lynn, 44, got married after her junior year in high school and got her General Educational Development diploma when she was pregnant with her second child. She enrolled at UMA years later and took most of her classes at the South Parish-Norway Distance Learning Center. Lynn received her bachelor’s degree in business administration and is starting a master’s program in leadership studies next year.

UMA basketball player Brandon Rogers, from a small town south of San Francisco, had a college career that started in North Dakota and took him to Missouri and Louisiana before he finished his final three years at UMA. He scored more than 1,000 points and grabbed over 1,000 rebounds, and in August, Rogers will become the first player from UMA to continue his career overseas. He will pursue his master’s degree at the University of Essex in England while playing for the Essex Blades development team.

“UMA was such a support system for me after traveling to five colleges and when making this transition (to Europe),” Rogers said outside his former home arena after the ceremony. “To fulfill my dreams has been amazing.”

Amanda Kelly, 37, is the first in her family to graduate from college and was the first to graduate from high school. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in French and has done humanitarian work in Haiti since 2010.

Hanson said when she started at UMA, she wasn’t sure what path she wanted to take, but she knew she wanted to make a difference. She chose a career to match her passion after “taking fundamental courses, with personalized learning and professors that care.”

Hanson said UMA’s academic theme of interdisciplinarity translates to nursing by being part of an interdisciplinary team, the same kind of team that saved the life of her 3-pound son when he was born more than 15 weeks early.

Hanson ended her remarks by challenging her fellow graduates to “go with passion, go with love, go with energy and go with enthusiasm.”

“Do your best and make an impact,” Hanson said.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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