PORTLAND – It’s a tradition at every graduation to shift the tassels from the right to the left side of the mortarboard. It’s an act symbolic of the transition from student to graduate.

As Alexandra-Elena Panaitiu led her fellow University of New England graduates in the turning of the tassels at the end of Saturday’s commencement ceremonies, she felt a mix of emotions.

“It’s exciting, because I do feel very accomplished,” Panaitiu said. “But at the same time, it’s very sad. It’s very emotional because I don’t want to leave (UNE) and I don’t want this to be over.”

Panaitiu was awarded a degree in biochemistry and neuroscience, culminating four years of hard work. Hers was one of 1,247 degrees awarded by the university during the ceremony held at the Cumberland County Civic Center.

At the beginning of the ceremony, friends and family cheered as they saw their loved one enter the center. A group of five stood to the side of the stage wearing white shirts with pink and green letters that spelled out “T-A-R-A-!” When they saw graduate Tara Smith amid the sea of black caps and gowns, they shouted enthusiastically, prompting her to wave back.

Among that crowd, Panaitiu stood to celebrate the long journey she was completing. The graduate came to Biddeford from a small town in Romania to pursue her degrees. Her parents, who are both physicians, always emphasized that she get the best education possible. They were able to watch her receive the university’s highest honor for a senior on the Biddeford Campus, the Jacques Downs Award for Academic Excellence, via simulcast.

Admittedly, being so far away from home her first year on campus was difficult. Panaitiu said she quickly adjusted though, immersing herself in the culture of the university, growing friendships with peers and bonds with faculty.

“I’ve had the time of my life here. It’s been amazing. It’s heartbreaking that I have to graduate and leave,” she said.

By this fall, Panaitiu will be enrolled at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire working toward a doctorate degree. She hopes she can continue in academia as a professor, as well as conducting scientific research.

Her ambitions and goals already emulate the advice of keynote speaker Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine.

Michaud joked about a renowned Maine phrase, “you can’t get there from here,” during his address. He said many people repeated that notion to him as he pursued his career in politics, but he never let that stop him.

“As you go forward, just remember to find the thing that drives you and let it guide you,” he said. “And always remember, you can get there from here if you want to.”

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]