Graduate Charles Ernesto kisses his daughter, Jhope, after the University of Maine at Augusta graduation Saturday at the Augusta Civic Center. Ernesto, who studied cybersecurity, was one of the first to receive a master’s degree from UMA. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Over 300 graduates proudly marched Saturday during the University of Maine at Augusta’s first in-person graduation ceremony since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020.

Graduation ceremonies were held remotely for the past two years.

Overall, about 500 students coming from myriad different backgrounds and walks of life were part of the graduating class, though many chose not to attend the live ceremony to receive their diplomas.

Kristin Whittemore and her two daughters, Emily and Ashley, all finished at different times amid the pandemic, but the three were able to march together during the 2022 commencement.

Kristin Whittemore said her daughters were homeschooled, and after finishing they moved onto other things and later decided to go back to school.

“We all needed to go back to school,” said Whittemore, “so we did.”

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All three received degrees in liberal studies. Looking ahead, Emily Whittemore is considering obtaining a graduate degree and pursuing a future as a screenwriter while Ashley Whittemore is looking into a career in natural medicines.

All three said it felt “really special” to be able to march together.

“This is the first time Emily and I have graduated, since we were homeschooled,” said Ashley Whittemore. “We’ve never had a graduation before, and now we get to do it.”

Graduate Debra Blaisdell, who received an associate of arts degree in liberal studies, is a great-grandmother who graduated high school in Rumford in 1974. She decided to go back so she could beat her kids and grandkids in the popular game show “Jeopardy!”

“I stayed home for 20 years and raised three kids, and put all of them through college,” she said. “I have three grandkids, one in Orono and one in Southern Maine and one who graduated in 2021, and now I have a great-grandson.”

Graduates on the floor wave to spectators in the bleachers behind them Saturday during the University of Maine at Augusta’s graduation ceremony at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Growing up, Blaisdell said the idea of college seemed out of reach.

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“My stepfather only went to eighth grade. My mother only went to 10th grade,” she said. “We didn’t think it was attainable. Only the smart kids and the richer kids went to college.”

As she was working her way through school over the past several years, she had to deal with the deaths of her husband and stepfather. Adding a pandemic into the mix only compounded her challenging road to graduation.

This marks the first year UMA will confer degrees from its graduate programs, as they now offer a Master of Science in cybersecurity and a graduate certificate in substance use disorders.

And, in line with race and social justice being UMA’s theme for the academic year, the ceremony featured a commencement address from diversity, equity and inclusion consultant Anthony James Jr., Ph.D.

James is a newly promoted professor in the Department of Family Science and Social Work at Miami University (of Ohio), and is a published author in the diversity, equity and inclusion field.

UMA President Joseph Szakas said James has been supporting the university throughout the academic year as it began implementing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in its 2021-25 strategic plan, and that his consultation has focused on “assisting in the development of campuswide DEI strategic goals, an implementation plan, and mechanisms of accountability to evaluate progress toward goal completion.”

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Szakas, in his opening remarks, said that in UMA’s mission to be a more welcoming place for all who want to learn, they have added a new welcome center, learning commons, student lounges, and meditation and prayer spaces, which are all tangible illustrations of their efforts.

James thanked Szakas for the introduction, and his speech focused on the year’s academic theme of race and social justice and the assigned reading of “Caste: The Origins of our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson.

He said that a caste system, which is defined as “one of the hereditary social classes in Hinduism that restrict the occupation of their members and their association with the members of other castes,” restricts a person’s social opportunities.

“The fate of the individual is determined by the unchanging features and characteristics they are born with,” he said. “While this unchanging limitation can certainly be advantageous for those at the top, it presents some stark and diminishing realities for those in the system who don’t enjoy such privilege.”

The Wilkerson book, he said, focuses on not only the caste system of India, but also that of Nazi Germany and the United States. James said that while these systems each occurred in different parts of the world, and for different reasons, Wilkerson “passionately argued their overarching similarity.”

Dr. Anthony James Jr., Ph.D., the 2021-22 diversity, equity and inclusion consultant at UMA and a professor of Family Science and Social Work at Miami University of Ohio, gives the commencement address Saturday during the University of Maine at Augusta graduation at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“One approach to social justice is that individuals are provided an equitable opportunity to pursue their interest without impeding that of others,” he said. “Regardless of the features and characteristics a person is born with, they are able to pursue interests that promote the actualizing of their human potential. But even under a system that freely allows such opportunities, humans have what Jim Rohn referred to as ‘the dignity of choice.’ Humans can lose focus, develop other interests, or succumb to the challenges that threaten their ability to achieve what they desire to achieve.”

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He concluded by encouraging the graduating students to plan out their next adventure, to be lifelong learners, and to not forget their capabilities, and to remember to be kind amidst it all.

Student speaker Cassidy Lessner, who received a bachelor’s degree in nursing with a minor in grief, loss and trauma, emphasized the importance of setting goals and the work required to see those goals come to fruition.

“Through the long endless nights of studying and the bright early mornings of the clinical,” she said during her speech, “the ending seemed like it wasn’t anywhere in sight. Through hard work and determination to meet my goal, my personality and character were built. I had no idea that along my journey as a student-athlete I was going to be taught empathy, resilience and strength.”

To the underclassmen, she said to “give all of yourself to this journey” and become as involved as possible while never losing sight of personal goals. And to her fellow graduates, she challenged them to continue dreaming, to continue setting goals, and to never settle for anything less.

She concluded with a quote from fitness expert Fred DeVito: “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.”

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