ORONO, Maine — U.S. Sen. Susan Collins called herself a “black sheep in a Black Bear family” because she did not graduate from the University of Maine on Saturday, just before she was given an honorary degree at the school’s 209th graduation.
“I hope this honorary degree will transform me from a black sheep to a full-fledged Black Bear,” she told the 2011 UMaine graduating class during the first of two Saturday commencement ceremonies. “Both my parents, older sister, younger brother, grandfathers and all my uncles” are UMaine grads, she said.
Collins was introduced by UMaine President Robert Kennedy, who praised her work in the Senate supporting the state’s flagship university, and when Collins took the podium she was given a standing ovation by many in the packed Alfond Arena.
She urged the graduating students to focus on the positives in life and used as an example author Alex Haley, who wrote “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” about his family being enslaved and the savage racism they experienced.
“So often those people who face the greatest difficulties teach us the most,” she said.
After praising the university’s achievements and thanking Kennedy for his time as president, Collins ended her talk by telling the students that “Maine needs what you have to offer.” She also encouraged them to get involved in their communities.
Collins was the commencement speaker for both graduation ceremonies, one at 10 a.m. for degree candidates from the College of Business, Public Policy and Health; College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; and Division of Lifelong Learning, and the second at 2:30 p.m. for students from the College of Education and Human Development; College of Engineering (including the School of Engineering Technology); and College of Natural Sciences, Forestry and Agriculture.
Around 2,123 UMaine students earned degrees, and the first two were given to valedictorian Kristopher Cooper of Winthrop and salutatorian Rachel Ann Ventrealla of Fayette.
Many in the crowd of family and friends who gathered at the ceremony could barely contain their excitement when they saw their loved ones make their way to their seats. Many took out cell phones or cameras and took pictures and did what they could to draw their graduate’s attention.
Brooke Cleaves, her mother, Holly Cleaves, and Cassy Devoe, all Passamaquoddy Tribe members from Indian Township, had a bright pink sign with the words “Billy Boo” printed on it.
They were there along with at least 14 other family and relatives to celebrate the graduation of William Malson Longfellow, who earned a degree in anthropology.
“It’s quite an accomplishment for one of our tribal members,” said Holly Cleaves.
Each teenage girl held a can of colorful Silly String, planning to spray the new graduate as he left the Alfond Arena. Longfellow was easy to pick out of the crowd because he wore a traditional sash around his neck.
Kristen Anderson of Massachusetts saw her daughter Marcia Lee “Marcy” Mannarino walk into the Alfond Arena, but she did not see her again until she left the stage with her diploma.
“I want to yell. You do it,” Anderson said to her other daughter when they first saw her.
As Mannarino stepped from the stage, Anderson couldn’t hold back anymore and called her daughter’s name. Mannarino stopped and smiled a loving smile while her mom and sister took pictures.
“I yelled that time,” Anderson said, wiping away happy tears.
University of Maine System board of trustees member William Johnson of Saco, a 1956 UMaine graduate, delivered greetings from the board at the morning ceremony. Trustee Charles O’Leary of Orono, a 1960 UMaine graduate, delivered the message at
the afternoon ceremony.
“You have given yourself one of the finest gifts you have ever received,” Johnson said.
Sen. Collins was given a Doctor of Humane Letters degree after her speech, and Cianbro Chairman and CEO Peter Vigue received the same degree during the afternoon ceremony.
Kennedy, who is stepping down from the UMaine presidency at the end of next month, told the graduates that “commencement is not an end, but a beginning” and encouraged them to use their talents creatively to better their communities and the world.
Unity College in Unity awarded 110 bachelor of science degrees on Saturday, and Gary Nabhan, author and sustainable agriculture activist, was to be the commencement speaker. The University of Maine at Fort Kent also held commencement exercises on Saturday.