ORONO, Maine — Lauren Sterling of Waterville graduated Saturday from the University of Maine with nearly 1,700 others who earned degrees this spring. She graduated the way many of them did, too, smiling as the new UMaine alumni walked across a stage at Alfond Arena and accepted their diplomas.
But it’s likely no other graduate had the honors Sterling had this year.
The Outstanding Graduating Student in UMaine’s Division of Lifelong Learning, Sterling recently was named the 2010 National Continuing Education Student of the Year by the University Continuing Education Association.
Sterling had a smile on her face as she walked down the steps of a stage in the Alfond Arena and briefly held up her diploma.
Her husband, Colby College President William D. Adams, and other members of her family, who live in Skowhegan, were among the nearly 14,000 people who watched the day’s two commencement ceremonies from the arena’s stands and floor seats.
“It’s been a very long journey, but one that I wouldn’t change,” Sterling said after Adams gave her flowers and showed her a pink UMaine cap he had bought for her. “I think I learned more about education by doing it this way than doing it the easy way.”
Graduates receiving degrees from UMaine’s College of Business, Public Policy and Health; College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; and Division of Lifelong Learning, the group that included Sterling, graduated during the morning ceremony.
The remaining graduates from the College of Education and Human Development; the College of Engineering; and the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry and Agriculture participated in an afternoon event.
Commencement speaker Gov. John E. Baldacci — a 1986 UMaine graduate whose son, Jack, is enrolled at UMaine — told the students during the morning ceremony he, too, will be “graduating” soon as he leaves office at the end of his second term.
Baldacci said the world had changed “dramatically” since his graduation, and it will likely do so again when Saturday’s graduates return for their 10-year reunion.
“And you’ll all be there to help shape it,” he said.
Paul Mayewski, director of UMaine’s Climate Change Institute and the 2010 University of Maine Alumni Association Distinguished Maine Professor, told the students they should be prepared to cause change.
“With the skills you’ve gained at the University of Maine, you can actively and very productively participate in positive change,” he said. “Now more than ever there are immense opportunities for you to be on the leading edge of change.”
Sterling’s degree is a bachelor’s in university studies with a focus on nonprofit administration. Last fall she was named the Outstanding Continuing Education Student from the New England region.
Sterling, 48, was singled out for pursuing her degree while working full time and being actively involved in public service.
Since 2001 she has staffed the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet, which is led by first lady Karen Baldacci.
Sterling also is the volunteer coordinator of the Greater Waterville Area Communities for Children & Youth. In 2007, she established the Alliance on Early Care and Learning in Waterville.
“It’s interesting to be working in policy around trying to improve young people’s education and be in the middle of dealing with the challenges of getting an education,” she said. “I feel like I have a good understanding and a lot of empathy for how challenging it can be.”
Sterling, a Skowhegan native, also studied at New York University and was a singer and actress in New York and Los Angeles. In 1993, she moved back to Maine and enrolled at UMaine to resume her education.
Taking her own path was important to Sterling.
“Those of us in this program are doing it for ourselves,” she said of the Division of Lifelong Learning. “We’re competing with ourselves and not other people. We’re all here paying for this, and we have a sense of the obligation to not only complete it, but do it well.”
This year’s valedictorian was Amy Marie Smith of Lincolnville. The salutatorian was Matthew Adrian Bouchard of Lewiston.