AUGUSTA — Eric Jones and Muhumed Abdi took different paths to the Augusta Civic Center on Saturday morning, where each was among more than 500 graduates who received degrees from the University of Maine at Augusta.

Abdi, 50, moved to Lewiston about a decade ago, after leaving his home country, Somalia, and spending 20 years in a Kenyan refugee camp, he said after the commencement. More recently, he has been living in Fargo, North Dakota, and taking courses for his Bachelor of Science degree remotely while looking after his eight children.

He moved across the country to be closer to relatives after his wife died, and he’s been working to help other immigrants learn English and adjust to life in the U.S.

Jones, who turned 53 on Saturday, worked retail jobs for many years and volunteered for youth programs at his church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He lives in the midcoast town of Hope and decided to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal studies after an anonymous donor contacted him through the church and offered to pay for his education.

Now both men hope their college degrees will help them find work in the field of mental health and human services.

“I’m 53,” said Jones, who hopes to find a job as a counselor in a public school and expressed gratitude to that donor. “I thought I was going to die working in retail. Now I have a chance.”

The notion that people from sundry backgrounds can have a chance at success was fresh on everyone’s mind, as it was the subject of a commencement speech by George J. Mitchell, the Waterville native and former U.S. senator who helped negotiate a peace agreement in Northern Ireland.

Mitchell declared that it was the “openness of American society” that allowed him, the son of a textile worker and a janitor, to receive an education and go on to become the majority leader of the U.S. Senate.

“This is a society in which no one is guaranteed success, but everyone should have the chance to succeed,” Mitchell said. “Many of you have worked hard to get where you are. I hope you now have a burning desire to take your life to the next level.”

Mitchell started off his speech remarking on the importance of brevity, to laughter from the crowd of more than 1,000, and promising to “stop speaking before you stop listening.”

He reminded the graduates that they have a responsibility in correcting society’s ills and challenged them to speak up “in the presence of evil.”

He highlighted two things — discrimination and the denial of a good education to all American children — as injustices that must be opposed, but he did not provide specific examples of those forces at work.

While it’s important for the graduates to make a living for their families and themselves, Mitchell urged them to find a purpose in something greater than their own self-interest.

“The more things you acquire, the more evident it will become to you that there’s much more to life than acquisition,” Mitchell said. “You’ll find that fulfillment will not come from how many things you own.”

Lynn Merrill and her guide dog, Libby, walk into the University of Maine at Augusta graduation Saturday in the Augusta Civic Center. Merrill was the student speaker during the ceremony. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Before Mitchell spoke, the audience also heard a speech from 61-year-old Lynn Merrill, who was graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal studies.

Merrill, who told her story to the Kennebec Journal last week, also helped exemplify the value of taking chances. She never finished college years ago, then left a career in hospital administration in the early 2000s after losing her eyesight.

In recent years, Merrill decided to pursue a college degree to help her advocate for the rights of other blind people and possibly to be better equipped to find a job.

In her speech, she described risks she’s taken along the way, such as trusting a guide dog to navigate for her and traveling to Europe on her own. She also described hiking Mount Katahdin in recent years with a guide, who directed her by tapping a stick on the boulders strewn across the trail.

“I had to take a giant leap of faith and land it,” Merrill said during her speech, recalling having to hop from boulder to boulder. “We made it to Baxter Peak, but that wasn’t our goal. Our goal was to return safely. Today, we celebrate. Take it in. Settle into a comfort zone. But inevitably there will be new goals, and I shall embrace those opportunities, and I hope you will too. I hope you will listen to the tap-tap-tap that leads you to your next goals. Congratulations, and thank you.”

During the commencement ceremony, an honorary degree was presented to Genie Gannett, the president and founder of the First Amendment Museum at the Gannett House, on State Street in Augusta, and the granddaughter of prominent Maine publisher Guy P. Gannett.

The Kathleen Dexter Distinguished Student Award was given to Carmen Bragg, an honors student who received a Bachelor of Arts degree in biology. During her time at UMA, Bragg was a co-captain of the women’s basketball team, an admissions ambassador, a member of the Student Government Association and a volunteer at the Hallowell Food Bank, among other endeavors.

The Distinguished Alumni Award was presented to Elisa Paylor Ellis, a 2007 undergraduate who went on to complete programs in business and law at Thomas College and the University of Maine School of Law, respectively, and to provide more than 80 hours of pro bono legal service. She now sits on the board of the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Children’s Center in Augusta.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

 

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