PORTLAND – They celebrated their college graduation with dances, songs and drumming.

A diverse collection of students from as far away as Russia, India, Somalia and Iraq was recognized Thursday night by the University of Southern Maine.

The students, many of whom left their families to pursue an education in the United States, had to overcome obstacles — such as learning a new language — to earn the degrees they will get this year.

Although USM’s official commencement won’t be held until May 14, the annual multicultural and international student graduation and recognition celebration is a way for the university to shine a light on a smaller and more challenged group of students.

“This is their night,” said Reza Jalali, coordinator of multicultural student affairs for USM. “They tend to get lost in the (schoolwide) commencement ceremony.”

This year’s graduating class of what USM describes as “racially and ethnically underrepresented” students is the largest in the university’s history.

Jalali said about 220 multicultural and international students, including several American Indians, will graduate from USM this year. About 40 attended Thursday night’s event.

The program featured “One Nation,” an American Indian drumming and singing group; Sokolica, a Serbian folk dance troupe; and a Rwandan dance group made up of young women from French-speaking parts of Africa.

The commencement speaker was Jelena Sarenac, a Bosnian refugee who will graduate with a bachelor of arts degree in political science and international studies.

Many of the students couldn’t attend the event because they must work two or three jobs to pay for their college expenses.

One who did attend, and performed for her classmates, was Malika Umarova.

Umarova, 25, is from the Republic of Uzbekistan, formerly part of the Soviet Union. She will graduate with a master’s degree in health policy and management from USM’s Muskie School of Public Service.

“The last two years (at USM) were the best years in my life,” said Umarova, who will return to her native country in December.

She praised the university, its staff and the students for embracing her shortcomings — she had a language barrier when she arrived in 2009 — and said her educational experience has opened her eyes to a world of possibilities.

In her country, women are expected to assume more traditional roles, such as being a housewife. That won’t be the case for Umarova, who will become a dentist.

She celebrated her fellow students’ achievements by performing a traditional Khoresm dance on stage in the Hannaford Lecture Hall.

Mustafa Al-Taie is the first student from Iraq to graduate from USM in years, Jalali said.

Al-Taie, 27, said he was training in Iraq to become a member of the military police force and teaching himself to speak English when a member of the U.S. military police — Henri Grenier of Auburn — decided that Al-Taie deserved a shot at an education in the United States.

Grenier paid for Al-Taie, who left his parents and seven siblings behind, to attend USM.

“It was a dream come true,” said Al-Taie, who is scheduled to graduate in December with a degree in education. He plans to teach grades K-8.

Al-Taie praised the university for supporting his studies.

“I can see America through these people and they are a great people,” he said.


Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

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