Marcel Chalou, NMCC Student of the Year, speaks during a pre-recorded speech, spoke as part of NMCC's virtual commencement on Saturday. Credit: Northern Maine Community College

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PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle graduated 190 people during its 55th commencement ceremony held Saturday. But it wasn’t a typical ceremony with crowds of family and friends dressed in their finery and milling around graduates.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced NMCC — as it will many other educational institutions around the state and beyond — to present its first virtual commencement.

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The ceremony, offered through NMCC’s Facebook and YouTube channels, featured many of the same in-person traditions — such as the faculty and guest speeches and the naming of the graduates and their degrees.

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“Whether you are viewing this video in the morning, the afternoon or the evening, it is our hope that you have gathered family and friends to share this moment,” Dottie Martin, dean of development and college relations, said. “Even in times like these, it is important to maintain some aspects of tradition.”

In the place of traditions that a virtual event cannot replicate, the graduation committee found creative ways to honor graduates. During the moments when graduates would normally march into The Forum’s gymnasium, the video displayed a photograph from a prior commencement of bagpipe players leading graduates inside.

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A message onscreen said that although the 190 graduates were not actually marching to the music at that time, the virtual environment did not diminish their accomplishments.

Graduates and family members were reminded that, “This year’s graduates deserve the same attention every graduate has received in our nearly 60 years as an institution.”

After spring break ended, NMCC’s classes transitioned online and on-site requirements limited student presence to adhere to the state’s stay-at-home order.

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Martin acknowledged the challenging circumstances that have defined the final month of the semester, and said she hoped graduates would find their own ways to celebrate with family, friends and instructors, even though physical distance separates them.

After listening to Bud Fancy, pastor of the Framework Church in Presque Isle, give the invocation and biology instructor Trena Soucy sing the national anthem, graduates watched President Tim Crowley address viewers.

While Crowley spoke of the unusual difficulties that the Class of 2020 has faced in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, he also reminded them to thank everyone who has helped them along the way. He acknowledged that many people, including himself, are missing out on the opportunity to honor graduates in traditional ways.

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“For me the most important part of this whole day is when graduates stand up and walk across that stage,” Crowley said. “I get to look you in the eye and shake your hand and see the excitement and pride that you have on your face.”

Everyone who has graduated will get the chance to march in the 2021 commencement. But for now, Crowley said, he wanted graduates to forget about what’s going on in the world and recognize what they have accomplished.

“I want to recognize the sacrifice you’re making so that your parents, your grandparents, your kids and all your family members can be safe and healthy,” Crowley said. “We’re all sacrificing something today, but we’re also celebrating.”

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Before announcing the names and degrees of graduates, the celebration included speeches from Dave Daigler, president of the Maine Community College System, and Marcel Chalou, NMCC Student of the Year.

Daigler noted that even though he could not be with the graduates in person, he was glad to still speak to the graduates and give a shout-out to their families and instructors.

“You have taught, encouraged and supported this awesome class of graduates. You always have, but this year you rose to a larger challenge,” Daigler said. “You have calmed their fears and lifted their spirits.”

Student of the Year Marcel Chalou’s journey to NMCC is one that initially took him away, then led him back to Aroostook County. He grew up in Easton and enlisted in the U.S. Marines after graduating from high school, serving in Afghanistan and Vietnam. For 10 years, Chalou worked in law enforcement in Nashville, Tennessee, until he and his wife Christy decided to move their family back to his hometown.

While addressing his fellow graduates Chalou, who earned a degree in water treatment technology, reminded them to remember lessons they’ve learned from instructors and one another as they enter an often uncertain future.

“As we begin our new careers, we have the opportunity to take with us not only what we learned in the books and the labs, but also to incorporate the qualities of those we admire and to make those qualities a part of ourselves,” Chalou said. “We will do this simply because it is the right thing to do and this is who we are.”

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