Paul Thiemens, 64, of Gorham, knows the names of hundreds of students who graduated Saturday from the University of Southern Maine. He makes it a point to remember and greet them in his job in the food court at the school’s McGoldrick Center in Portland. He beamed and clapped as they walked across the stage at the Cross Insurance Arena.

“Some of these students, I saw them two weeks ago, and they were so stressed,” he said. But they weren’t the only ones. “I filed my last paper last night.”

Thiemens doesn’t just work full time at the university. On Saturday, he graduated summa cum laude with his own bachelor’s degree in leadership and organizational studies.

“I talk to all the students, and they’re so excited,” he said “I thought, why not go upstairs and take some classes?”

Isabella St. Cyr smiles at the audience after receiving her degree in classical voice performance during the University of Southern Maine’s 144th commencement on Saturday at Cross Insurance Arena. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

This weekend marked the beginning of graduation season across the state. The University of Maine system handed out thousands of degrees in ceremonies in Orono, Augusta, Farmington, Fort Kent, Presque Isle, Portland and Machias. More than 6,100 students are eligible to graduate this year, though not all participate in the ceremonies. More than 100 will receive associate degrees, and 4,600 will receive bachelor’s degrees. Another 1,350 will receive master’s or doctoral degrees. The law school will graduate 85 students.

Across the country, colleges are bracing for protests over Israel’s war in Gaza during commencements, but school officials in Maine said they are not anticipating major disruptions. Students here have taken stands against the war, including by demonstrating and calling on their schools to divest from defense funds. Events and efforts to speak out are ongoing and generating some tensions with administrators over the role of the institutions in calling for peace.


Last month, a protest at the USM campus in Portland drew about 30 people for a peaceful demonstration that did not result in any arrests. Maine Students for Palestine, which includes students at schools across the state, organized that event and one on Saturday afternoon at Deering Oaks Park. But the commencement on Saturday morning for USM graduates was pomp and circumstance as usual.

Jacqueline Edmonson, president of USM, congratulated the students on earning their degrees under extraordinary circumstances.

“You navigated a worldwide pandemic,” she said. “You faced the realities of systemic racism and civil unrest in the United States. You persisted during times of political and economic uncertainty. You faced personal challenges, and in October, we had the tragic event in Lewiston that impacted our community in devastating ways, and here you are. You pursued your educational goals, and you are unwavering in your hope for a new and better future.”

University of Southern Maine student speaker Hamido Hassan addresses the class of 2024 during the 144th commencement on Saturday at Cross Insurance Arena. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

This year’s student speaker was Hamido Hassan, who graduated with a master’s degree in counseling with a concentration in clinical mental health. Born in a Kenyan refugee camp to Somali parents, she spoke about her gratitude for the opportunities she gained when she moved to Maine at 6 years old. She challenged her peers to support others now in the way they have been supported to get to this point.

“Self-doubt is a universal language spoken by many, especially in the hallways of academia,” Hassan said. “It’s the nagging voice that asks, ‘Can I really compete? Am I smart enough? Do I even belong here?’ Yet here we are. We are a testament to the resilience that resides within each of us in those moments of self-doubt. It was the power of community that transformed whispers of uncertainty into shouts of triumph. It was the professors, coaches, mentors, supervisors and family members who saw our potential even when we couldn’t see it ourselves.”

Graduates also heard from Tom Caron, a studio host for the Red Sox broadcast on NESN and a columnist for the Portland Press Herald. He held up a manila folder stuffed full of rejection letters from his early career; he’s kept them for more than 40 years.


“It’s easy now to look back on all these letters and see they were part of a journey, but at the time, each one felt like the end of the road,” he said. “My career would be coming to an end. But here’s the secret I want you to remember as you leave today when you go into the dreaded, so-called real world. You’re going to learn a lot more about yourself when you get these letters than you do when you have success. The question is, can you put those lessons to work?”

When it was time to hand out diplomas, officials took a moment to recognize three generations of the same family who graduated Saturday. Tanner Meserve, 22, earned a bachelor’s degree in health sciences as part of the occupational therapy accelerated track. His mom, 45-year-old Melissa Meserve, graduated with her master’s in adult and higher education. And his grandma, 66-year-old Brenda Plummer, also took home her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies with minors in psychology and advocacy.

“We have these huge conversations at night,” Melissa Meserve said in a story published by the university. “Everybody comes home, ‘And what did you learn today?’ ”

When the graduates spilled out of the Cross Insurance Arena, they celebrated with hoots and shouts. Their supporters in the crowd snapped photos and delivered bouquets of flowers. Sydney Franks, 22, was among the students who had been waiting for this moment for a long time; her high school graduation in 2020 was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the big day, she crocheted a bright yellow decorative square for her mortarboard. She added a sparkly message – “May the Fourth be with us! – a tribute to her classmates and to “Star Wars.” She planned to have lunch with her family and then see a showing of “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” later in the afternoon to celebrate. (The band also played the Star Wars theme as the students exited the building.)

“It has been one heck of a journey,” said Franks, who is originally from Brownfield. “This is my first proper graduation. I feel on top of the world.”

Thiemens said his wife, Bonnie, encouraged him to go back to school to finish the degree he abandoned years before. He planned to celebrate with his family – he has six children and seven grandchildren – but he’s not done yet. He’s continuing at USM to get his master’s degree. As he watched his classmates with a smile on his face, a student ran over to give him a hug.

“Michael!” Thiemens said in greeting.

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