This May, more than 1,000 graduates and some 7,000 family members and friends packed the Cumberland County Civic Center for the University of Southern Maine’s 132nd commencement.

As is always the case at graduation, the excitement was high, the emotion discernible and the sense of pride that is associated with the most important event in the life of any university evident.

Our guest speaker, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, recounted the many personal and professional challenges throughout her own life in a speech that resonated with the class of 2012.

Snowe told the audience, “Never forget that our most pressing problems in all spheres of life can be surmountable, if we refuse to be intractable.”

Each year, I recognize the determination of our graduates and the sacrifices that they and their parents, grandparents, spouses, partners, children, friends and others make to complete a university education. I could not be more proud of the students or more grateful to the faculty and staff who provide a rich array of educational opportunities.

Let me introduce some of those who were with us at commencement.

Eizo Wakatsuki, at age 100, traveled from Tokyo to Portland to be at the ceremony.

He rose from his seat several times to applaud the accomplishments of his grandson, Hayato Wakatsuki, a geography-anthropology student who enrolled at USM six years ago. The younger Wakatsuki will now return to Japan, where he plans to use his education to help rebuild his country after the devastating earthquake and tsunami.

Lynn Poor, a graduate of USM’s Lewiston-Auburn College and a staff member in the college’s Student Success Center, decorated her mortarboard with peacock feathers and the words “4-U Mom.”

Poor first enrolled at Keene State College in her home state of New Hampshire, and then transferred to Plymouth State, where she worked three jobs to meet expenses.

“Something had to give,” she wrote in an email to us, “and at the time, it was college. My mother was devastated. She had such high hopes for her oldest child and her only daughter. It broke my heart to leave but I just couldn’t continue at that time.”

Poor moved to Maine, and in 2006 decided to return to school at USM. Her mother had passed away from breast cancer in 1997.

“I like to think she was looking down on me on Saturday,” wrote Poor, “and saw those bright pink letters and significant peacock feathers and was smiling on me, very proud that her daughter finally earned the first bachelor’s degree in our immediate family.”

Armed with her degree in natural and applied sciences, she will apply this summer to USM’s graduate program in adult and higher education. That program, she said, will offer several career options, including teaching holistic health, higher education administration and academic advising.

As a deaf, non-traditional age nursing student with two young children, Joanie Grondin of Windham faced a unique set of challenges. Nevertheless, she graduated on time and found her education “positively life-changing.”

She has applied for medical-surgery nursing positions at hospitals in southern Maine, as well as at facilities in Boston that specialize in serving the deaf.

Originally from Uganda, Pamela Otunnu Porensky of Scarborough earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

She volunteers in local schools with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and, thanks to a prestigious 2012 Woodrow Wilson-Rockefeller Brothers Fund Fellowship for Aspiring Teachers of Color, she will complete a master’s in education from USM.

Porensky, whose uncle served in the United Nations and recently ran for president of Uganda, says she developed her passion for working with youth in 2001 during the U.N. Special Session on Children, and looks forward to serving her community through advocacy and education.

Dianna Walters, a staff member with Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative in St. Louis, spent nine years in Maine’s foster care system without a permanent family. Walters returned to Maine to earn her master’s in public policy and management, with honors, from USM’s Muskie School of Public Service.

She attended Bangor High and Deering High in Portland and received her GED diploma. From there, Walters earned her associate degree in liberal arts at Central Maine Community College and a bachelor’s degree in social and behavioral sciences at USM.

Our graduates enter the work world in uncertain economic times. But they take away from USM a first-rate education that will equip them, not only for a first job, but also for a lifetime of personal success and professional achievement.

Selma Botman is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be reached at:

[email protected]