This is commencement season in higher education, a time to celebrate students for their hard work and their many accomplishments.

It is also a time to appreciate the impact of higher education on the lives of our graduates and, by extension, on the communities in which they will live and work.

The University of Southern Maine marked its 130th commencement on May 15 in the Cumberland County Civic Center. Countless studies have demonstrated that a four-year degree is the single greatest predictor of a successful career and a fulfilling life.

At commencement we stand witness to the transformative potential of higher education as we honor the students who march in procession to receive their hard-earned diplomas.

Our graduates are of every age and many backgrounds. Many are first in their families to graduate — or even attend — university. Some are mothers, fathers or caregivers.

Others have devoted countless hours outside the classroom in internships and in jobs developing their skills and talents. Still others have served our communities through volunteer work and political action.

USM students balance many competing demands in order to earn a degree. Commencement is the culmination of years of challenges, hard work, perseverance, and, indeed, wonder. We are filled with pride for our students and salute their accomplishments.

Josephine Okot came to Portland from Sudan. She enrolled in USM with a goal “to work very hard, become a social worker,” and help others in the refugee community. “Everybody has different goals,” she told us, “but we all have the same dream. We want to be out there helping our community so we can live a better life in Portland. I feel like I belong here.”

John Coons of Corinna has sung opera, jazz, musical theater, even the national anthem at Fenway Park. “I can’t even remember the number of concerts I’ve been able to do,” said John, who earned a master’s in music performance.

He does, however, remember vividly a weekend when the USM School of Music hosted a high school chorale day. He performed in an opera workshop, led a tenor sectional and gave a master class. “I realized that I can actually do this as a career. USM has allowed me to be the person that I should be.”

Jamesie Morgan of Harpswell earned a master’s in teaching and learning. She was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease, which left her legally blind.

“I have had a lot of people doubt my abilities to be able to do things over the years,” she said.

“The minute I found USM it was like a new start for me. It has been an amazing experience. They have been more accepting of me than I think a lot of people have. The professors have been behind me 100 percent. It’s definitely my goal to prove that somebody with a vision impairment can be a teacher, and I know that teaching is definitely what I want to do.”

Sharoo Wengland and her husband, Steve, of Naples are first-generation college students who graduated with degrees in social and behavioral sciences and English, respectively. They have had many jobs working as truckers, wait-staff and in administration.

Both made a commitment to earn a college degree at USM. That was not an easy one to make. They are the parents of two young children and have full-time jobs.

“We both worked really hard to make a difference in our lives because we came to see education as the only way to make a change.” Sharoo said. “And our kids also see us reading and studying, so we are constantly showing them the importance of education.”

Sharoo, who found a job at USM through a temp agency, is now an important member of the president’s staff. She hopes to influence the development of policies related to poverty, women’s rights and homelessness.

Steve, who graduated summa cum laude, plans to earn a master of fine arts degree and become a writer.

“Being here as a student and as an employee has completely changed my life,” said Sharoo. “I really mean that. I owe everything to USM. I have confidence in myself and feel that I can go on to be somebody important and do amazing things.”

These and many other wonderful stories offer poignant reminders that student success defined as ensuring that each and every student leaves USM with a degree must remain at the core of all we do.

Our job is to make sure stories such as these are repeated again and again.

 

Selma Bottman is president of the University of Southern Maine.