An hour before the University of Southern Maine graduation was to start Saturday morning, Cheryl Conroy had blocked off 11 seats in a corner of the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland.

The South Portland resident and mother of four adult children said she is used to planning and wanted to make sure she and 10 other family members and friends had seats together to watch her youngest, Emily Conroy, walk across the stage to receive her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies.

“I just texted them to look for Section B and I spread out our jackets,” said Conroy, clutching a handful of programs.

It was a scene being played out across the arena, where thousands of people showed up Saturday to watch more than 1,700 undergraduate and graduate students receive their diplomas. The USM convocation and the commencement ceremony at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish on Saturday kicked graduation season into high gear.

At Saint Joseph’s, 561 graduates – 200 from the college’s campus programs and 361 from its online programs – received their degrees. The ceremony featured honorary degree recipients Mary Dempsey, co-founder of The Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing in Lewiston; Elizabeth McLellan, president and founder of Partners for World Health, a South Portland nonprofit; and Sister Mary Sullivan, a member of the Sisters of Mercy and a globally recognized expert on Sisters of Mercy founder Catherine McAuley. Speeches were delivered by McLellan and Caitlin Phillips of Gardiner, class valedictorian, and Deacon Greg Ollick, an online graduate from Atlanta.

“I ask that as you move on with your lives, that you carry compassion with you as you go. Find something in your careers that you truly believe in. Trust me: You may be working very hard, but it doesn’t feel like work when you believe in what you’re doing,” McLellan said.

USM’s graduation featured a graduation address by Richard Blanco, the poet, engineer and part-time Maine resident who was the fifth presidential inaugural poet in U.S. history. He read his poem “The Genius of Stars and Love,” and urged graduates to never stop learning and loving.

“If we never stop becoming, then why should you stop learning?” said Blanco.

Student speaker Matthew Araujo of Portland, a former English and philosophy major who dropped out and came back to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, also urged his fellow graduates to continue learning.

“That diploma, it’s a passport that will unlock doors that will take us new places,” Araujo said.

Honorary degrees were given to David Shaw, entrepreneur and founder of Idexx Laboratories in Westbrook and a 1976 USM graduate with a master’s degree in business administration; and posthumously to Stanley Robert “Bob” Crewe, an inductee into the Songwriters Hall of Fame whose hit songs included “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Sherry” and “Walk Like a Man.” Crewe moved to Scarborough for the last four years of his life to be near his brother, Dan Crewe of Cumberland, who accepted the degree on his behalf. Bob Crewe died last September.

A rousing medley of Crewe’s hits performed by a septet of graduating students and an alumna may have been the highlight of the commencement, judging by the applause.

Before the ceremony, some USM graduates said they were excited to move on with their lives.

Casey Webster, 28, of Falmouth was about to receive her master’s degree in public policy and management from the Muskie School of Public Service and is headed for University of Maine School of Law in the fall.  Webster said one of the highlights of her time at USM was starting a rescue service for rabbits, Friends of Willow, which has placed more than 30 rabbits in permanent homes.

“Rabbits make wonderful pets,” said Webster.

Alexis Semuhoza, 40, of Portland said receiving his bachelor’s degree in accounting will bring an end to a crazy schedule.

A refugee from his native Democratic Republic of Congo and then from Rwanda, Semuhoza has held down a full-time night job at Goodwill Industries of Northern New England while attending school full time and raising a family of four. He said his youngest son would ask him why he seemed to be at work all the time.

His family, including his wife, Joyeuse, and children Ewgenie, 20, a student at Southern Maine Community College; Jolie, 18, a student at the University of Maine in Orono; Mpore, 13; and Moses, 8, were at the ceremony to cheer him on.

“God helped me through every single day,” Semuhoza said.

 

Correction: This story was updated at 1:30 p.m. May 10 to correct a USM grad’s information.