by Rachel Joyce
On May 7th, I attended the URock 2016 graduation ceremony, an uplifting, inspiring, and as Deborah Meehan said, “It takes a mid-coast village to graduate a class of University students.” URock’s village houses an eclectic, dedicated group of professionals working tirelessly to teach students how to incorporate intensive college work into their already full time lives. After I experienced URock’s ceremony I am looking forward to my own. To anyone enrolled or to anyone who has ever dreamed of going to college, read this entire article, so I can show you how a couple of hours spent on the fourth floor campus can become a cherished memory, a legacy, to carry throughout a lifetime.
Seriously, it was that great. Just in case you don’t make it to the end here’s the front desk’s number (207)596–6906. All you have to say is “I want to go to college” and you’ll be enrolled by the end of the week. Also, I want to make clear that I was crazy nervous, didn’t take legible notes, so I have no quotes except ones from Deb’s speech that she lent me. Instead of reporting I sat back and absorbed a hometown family affair.
What struck me first was the gently lit entryway, hallways, and student lounge with the walls lined with treats from 3 Dogs Cafe and Cafe Miranda. While watching families of the 45 graduates make their way through the wide open door I was witness to the spirit, the calling, the purpose of URock embodied in a little girl named Kinzee, while she signed her name to the guest book underneath her graduating mom Laura’s signature. This is a college designed for parents striving for a better future for their children. This college is for young adults who don’t want to leave home or incur debt that will last a lifetime. This college is for the mid-lifers like me who are tired of saying “What if…”. Some were tearing up, all were excited, a bit nervous, and all were hugging, smiling, and some seemed a bit sad.
I asked a few people what they would carry with them when they left URock and every person said they would miss the people, the relationships, which have filled their lives for years. Unlike large college campuses in which classmates can be strangers, URock offers a peer support group, so we can all moan, groan, stress, and celebrate each other’s success.
The ceremony began with an invocation by Bill Halpin, adjunct faculty member in the Humanities. I had to look up invocation, one definition is a “humble prayer to a higher being for guidance” (Dictionary). His gentle voice was clearly heard above the chimes he rang while asking the divine to bless each college student being reborn into college graduates. In essence this night was a big birthday bash.
Then Deborah Meehan, the Director of University College at Rockland, gave a heartfelt speech, giving anonymous examples of individuals’ obstacles and successes: “You endured a degenerative illness while pursuing your degree and you graduate with honors. You returned to school in honor of the son you lost and he would be so proud of you today. Your skills build your personal and professional future and even more importantly, they build the future of Maine.” I imagine that as she spoke each thought about obstacles: birth, death, sickness, marriage, divorce, laughter, tears, work. All this while facing research papers, endless reading, and burning lots of “midnight oil.” As Deb said “Wallow in some self-congratulations, you earned it”.
Next, she introduced Chip Curry, the Coordinator of Student Services. To anyone who is going to call URock today, ask to make an appointment with Chip, because he has spent most of his life working and living in the word of academia, so he has probably dealt with any questions than can be asked about college life. He has a genuine welcoming smile, can give expert guidance, and when he’s around his door is literally always open. As he spoke of his appreciation and admiration for the students before him I imagine he had helped many through the everyday obstacles with humor and grace. Also, how lucky we are to have Althea, Dawn, and Renee, our lovely ladies at the front desk, answering the phones, keeping the paperwork straight, and amazingly greeting all 500 of us by our names. At URock no one is merely a name on a page.
As Deb introduced this year’s student speaker Colleen Hilt, graduating with a degree in Mental Health and Human Services, I was immediately impressed by how Colleen owned the ground she stood on and how her self-confidence made me want to hear every word she said. Because I didn’t take notes I have no quotes, but I do remember that she thanked Mr. Steve Moro for his course in Public Speaking. It’s not what she said, but how the audience laughed with her, clapped for her, and how I wanted the self-confidence that radiated out of her, which is born from the self-awareness taught through higher education.
Next, Gregory LaPointe, Senior Strategy Advisor for Organizational Effectiveness at the University of Maine at Augusta, handed out the student awards. Micayla Bucklin received the Joshua Bowen Performing Arts Award. Ryan Gass was the Tutor of the Year. Laurie Mills received an impressive Determination Award. Jon Dow was honored with a URock Service Award, and Marc Belley received the Associated Faculties of the UMA Chapter Scholarship. How people clapped, took pictures, the awardees smiled, and the entire room was happy for them.
Now came the keynote address by Randall Liberty, the Warden of the Maine State Prison. He has an impressive record of serving in the Army, has 33 years in correctional services, received the Bronze Star for his service in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and much more. He couldn’t have risen from his humble beginnings to his positions in life without education. He has a master’s degree in leadership from Liberty University in Virginia and a bachelor of science in public administration from the University of Maine at Augusta. Before that night I hadn’t seen a picture or knew anything about him. The man is handsome, tall with a crew cut, has an effortless smile, firm handshake, and gave us an inspirational speech. His theme was the importance of leading a life of integrity in order to leave a lasting legacy. A legacy is “something handed on from something that has come before” (Dictionary). He shared that the first pages he reads out of the newspaper are the obituaries, because he is inspired by other people’s accomplishments. After tonight each student can add their college graduation to their list of legacies passed down from parent to child and from parents to children again.
Notably, 18 additional UMA graduates of the A.A. and B.A. in Liberal Studies reside in the Maine State Prison. One of Liberty’s goals as Warden, as said in an interview in the Kennebec Journal is, “The primary goal is preventing recidivism” (Crosby). I wonder if those men have gone from Socrates’ cave of darkness into the light of self-actualization. After listening to the Warden I have hope that education might enable burdens of society to become members of society.
After Mr. Liberty, Rebecca Wyke, University System Vice Chancellor gave a special tribute to Bonnie Sparks who is retiring from the position of Executive Director of University College statewide. With smiles, good wishes, and clapping the room thanked Bonnie for her years of excellent service.
The ceremony concluded with the graduates proudly standing in front of their husbands, wives, teachers, children, parents, colleagues and friends. Each person gave a name, degree completed, and a special thanks. I don’t have any quotes, but I can tell you that the tears, laughter, applause, and joy filled every heart in the room, including mine.
I will end with a quote from Deb. “Soon UMA will reach out to you with a ‘Pay It Forward Coupon’ that you may pass on to a potential new student. Your success will inspire others to go to college. Success is contagious. So please consider yourself to be a college recruiter and send friends and family to our door.”
Call the number. Ask for Deb or Chip, because as each member of the 2016 graduating class can attest, dreams can be turned into a reality, which can become part of your very own legacy.