AUGUSTA — “This is your charge today: Go forth and right injustices.” 

That’s what speaker Judith Meyer told about 350 graduates and over 1,000 attendees Saturday morning at the University of Maine at Augusta’s 51st commencement, held at the Augusta Civic Center.

Meyer, the executive editor of the Sun Journal, the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel and seven Maine weekly newspapers, delivered the commencement address along the school year’s academic theme of “freedom of speech.” She said every person has been aided by freedom of speech and the power of speech “cannot be overstated.”

“Every person here has been helped by speech,” she said. “I recognize each of you as ambassadors of the First Amendment.”

“Use your voice, alone and together, for the common good,” she added.

Student speaker Lian Oyerbides, of Augusta, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in justice studies, moved the audience with her story of how she came to attend the university despite moving to the United States from China, escaping an abusive relationship with her son and pursuing higher education even when it was only a dream she had.

“It was the darkest time in my life; I found myself with no place to live and $500 in my pocket,” she said. “I felt the urge to move in a different direction … into what seemed like an impossible dream.”

Oyerbides, a correctional officer with the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, plans to continue her education in Texas, pursuing a law degree with a concentration in assisting domestic violence victims. She said she used to keep her dreams of becoming a lawyer to herself because she was afraid of failing, but her education has given her the confidence to aim higher.

“No longer will I keep my dreams to myself,” she said. “I am on my way and I know a similar story is true for all of you today.”

“Class of 2019, dream big and believe in yourself, be proud, and I wish you a bright future,” she added.

Gillian Jordan, an associate English professor, compared Oyerbides to superhero Captain Marvel before presenting her with the Kathleen Dexter Distinguished Student Award.

You are a real-life superhero,” she said to Oyerbides. “you are using your new powers for good.”

Keynote speaker Judith Meyer, executive editor of Sun Media Group, speaks on Saturday at the University of Maine at Augusta commencement at the Augusta Civic Center. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

UMA President Rebecca Wyke presided over the commencement ceremony. Last month, the University of Maine System board of trustees waived a presidential search in favor of appointing Wyke for a second two-year term. University system Chancellor James Page, who is retiring at the end of his term, said it was the second time in the system’s history that a search was waived.

Wyke spoke about the school’s role as a commuter institution that provides students of all ages to pursue higher education. She said the youngest graduating student was 19 years old and the oldest was 69. According to the commencement program, graduates came from as far away as California.

Nontraditional student Russell “Rusty” Hopkins, 48, of Augusta, said it was “cool” to have a university close to home. Hopkins, a master sergeant in the National Guard who has served for 27 years, said he plans to find a full-time job in either the behavioral health or substance abuse fields, perhaps working with veterans.

Jessica Blake waves to the audience Saturday while she marches into the University of Maine at Augusta commencement ceremony at the Augusta Civic Center. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

“Coming right out of high school, … I wasn’t ready for college,” Hopkins said, adding that he hated school. “UMA has some great benefits (for military members) and great classes; it’s been fun.”

Randall Liberty, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections and a 1998 UMA graduate, was awarded an honorary degree in humane letters.

Mount Vernon resident George Smith, author and former executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, received the Distinguished Achievement Award, recognizing outstanding achievements in one’s profession or service to his or her community, state or country.

Smith, who also has written a weekly editorial column for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel for the last 28 years, made an impassioned plea for graduates to place roots in Maine, which has one of the highest median ages in the country.

“Please stay in Maine or come back to Maine,” he said. “I can tell you, based on my life, there’s no better place to work and live than our state.”

State Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty, left, is given a hood for an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Provost Joseph Szakas on Saturday during the University of Maine at Augusta commencement, held at the Augusta Civic Center. Liberty is a 1998 UMA graduate. Before going to work for the state, he was the Kennebec County sheriff. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

 

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