Christine Bratcher is not the stereotypical college student. Seeking career advancement, she enrolled in Husson University a decade after graduating from high school. And as she pursued a degree in business administration and earned a 4.0 GPA, she raised a daughter who’s now 13.
Bratcher, 33, of Bucksport, is one of the three valedictorians of Husson’s 2021 graduating class. Husson this weekend becomes the first Bangor-area college to celebrate graduation in person, with an outdoor ceremony on Saturday with pandemic restrictions in place, including masking, social distancing and a limit of two guests per graduate.
Meanwhile, the University of Maine in Orono will release a commencement video later this month, Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor marked commencement on Friday night with a virtual ceremony and Bangor’s Beal University will honor graduates on June 13 with a ceremony at the Bangor Drive-In theater in Hermon for the second year in a row.
The differing ceremonies reflect a nationwide divide as colleges look to please their students while keeping them away from risks of the pandemic. Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah has said it is safe to hold outdoor graduation ceremonies with social distancing and masking in place. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends virtual ceremonies.
Nearly 750 Husson University students will graduate in two outdoor commencement ceremonies at the Winkin Sports Complex on its campus on Saturday, with Bratcher participating in the ceremony for undergraduate students.
After graduating from Machias Memorial High School in 2006, Bratcher spent a decade working at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor. She enrolled in Husson in an effort to move up the career ladder and help her resume.
She and her daughter often did homework together, an experience Bratcher said allowed her to show her daughter the importance of education.
“Doing homework late at night and struggling right along with her, I think, just reinforces the normalcy of it,” Bratcher said. “She’s super excited that I’m valedictorian — probably more than I am.”
Bratcher said her high grades would have been impossible without a solid support system, including her boyfriend, daughter and many Husson professors.
She will spend the summer interning at the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. After that, Bratcher hopes to put her business administration degree to work in a management role. She has also applied to Husson’s Master of Business Administration program for the fall.
Bratcher wants to perform work that is meaningful, but also to find a position she will enjoy.
“I think too many people settle for the status quo,” Bratcher said. “One thing that Husson’s imparted on me is the importance of pursuing my passion and to never stop learning.”
Husson had initially planned on a students-only ceremony that guests could watch virtually, but changed plans in March after Maine officials permitted outdoor gatherings that used up to 75 percent of a venue’s capacity.
The other 2021 Husson valedictorians are Natalie Rickards, who is from Patten, and Ariana Wortman, from Oxbow Township in Aroostook County.
Husson’s commencement is traditionally held at the Cross Insurance Center, which is currently being used as a mass vaccination clinic. The university plans to return there for its 2022 commencement.
UMaine’s 2021 commencement will be virtual and available as a video in late May, though the university held livestreamed commencement walks in late April and early May that it will include in the package. More than 2,000 UMaine students will receive degrees this year.
Bailey West, 22, who grew up in Stockton Springs, is the 2021 valedictorian. She will appear during the commencement video in a pre-recorded speech.
West said she decided to go to UMaine because she thought it would offer a personalized experience in a large university setting.
She chose to study biochemistry because of the opportunity to perform lab research while an undergraduate. Even as many classes went online during the pandemic, she was able to use UMaine’s lab to research her thesis topic: the effectiveness of cetylpyridinium chloride, an antiseptic compound used in many mouthwashes. She defends it over Zoom on Tuesday.
West was out of the country when the pandemic hit Maine in March 2020, studying abroad at the University College Cork in Ireland. Taking the flight home was not easy, she said.
“Studying abroad, we always talk about the worst-case scenario, if you have to evacuate or something,” West said. “But we never actually think it’s going to happen.”
Yet, she said, the experience helped teach her one of the lessons she focused on in her commencement speech: the importance of resilience, especially during a global pandemic that has killed millions and disrupted nearly every aspect of life.
Like Bratcher, West said she wouldn’t have been able to get through college without her support system of family, friends and college faculty.
“Going into college, I just wanted to do the best I could in my classes and take it one day at a time,” West said. “It’s kind of surreal that it’s amounted to this.”
West will intern at The Jackson Laboratory this summer before moving to Baltimore in the fall to pursue a doctorate in pathobiology at Johns Hopkins University.