Katherine Desjardins of Bangor, a member of UMPI's Class of 2020, came to campus for the first time Saturday to take part in the commencement ceremony. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine – Students who graduated from the University of Maine at Presque Isle during the most intense years of the COVID pandemic finally got the chance to don a cap and gown and march alongside their peers on Saturday.

Members of the classes of 2020 and 2021 were among the 245 graduates honored during UMPI’s first in-person ceremony since 2019. For those with Aroostook County connections, the day marked the first time they could celebrate in a more traditional, non-virtual manner with family, friends, classmates and faculty.

Caribou native and NASA astronaut Jessica Meir delivered a surprise video message, calling 2022 a “truly remarkable year.” Graduates of all three classes have not only proven their resiliency but set out on paths to achieve their goals.

“Congratulations to all of you,” Meir said. “May the wings of the snowy owl set you off on the most magnificent of flights that are certain to be your futures.”

Brooke Hallett, a Saco native and 2020 graduate of UMPI’s business administration program, was living on campus in March 2020 when the campus closed its doors and sent students home to finish the semester online. Just two months before graduation, she had to say goodbye to friends and professors and return to southern Maine.

Brooke Hallett of Saco, a member of UMPI’s Class of 2020, returned to campus this weekend to march in commencement and celebrate her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / The Star Herald

“I was actually sitting in this library, working on a paper, when I got the email saying I had to leave,” Hallett said Saturday. “It was a very rushed goodbye. Within 24 hours my parents had to come and bring me home.”

Since earning her bachelor’s degree, Hallett has worked for Wellness Connection of Maine, which operates retail cannabis shops and dispensaries across the state. This year, she earned her master’s degree in organizational leadership from UMPI’s online program.

Hallett’s county connections motivated her to march in this year’s commencement. Most of her family lives in Mars Hill and she is also a member of the Houlton Band of Maliseets. It may be two years later, but she and her family can now celebrate.

“In 2020 my family had planned for a party, but now that I’m here, we can finally do that,” Hallett said.

Saturday’s commencement also marked the first time that 2020 graduate Katherine Desjardins of Bangor had ever seen the UMPI campus.

Desjardins earned her both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UMPI online while working two full-time jobs and raising three children. She works for a Bangor-based software company and is working on a doctoral degree in business administration with a focus on strategic innovation.

Though Desjardins was already earning her bachelor’s degree virtually when COVID began, she was disappointed not to meet and march alongside her classmates. After the long wait, she and her husband, Alain Desjardins, were excited to celebrate with family in Aroostook.

“It was definitely weird to not have a ceremony [in 2020],” Desjardins said. “Because I’ve never done anything like this, I wanted to see if I could meet people who had done the [degree] program. I’m definitely excited to be here.”

During Saturday’s commencement, university leaders and special guests recognized how the resiliency of students like Hallett and Desjardins helped them earn degrees despite the challenges of the pandemic.

Brooke Hallett (left) and Katherine Desjardins (middle), members of UMPI’s Class of 2020, turn their tassels to the left while taking part in the university’s commencement ceremony on Saturday. UMPI invited members of the 2020 and 2021 classes to the first in-person ceremony since 2019. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / The Star Herald

Resiliency was the theme of remarks from honorary degree recipients Don and Linda Zillman.

Don Zillman served as UMPI’s president from 2006 to 2012 and served in leadership roles at other University of Maine System campuses before retiring in 2019. His wife Linda has been an advocate for the arts and higher education in Maine, having previously served on the Board of Portland Ballet and the Alliance Board of the Art Museum, now the Zillman Art Museum, at the Bangor UMaine campus.

Linda Zillman said out of all the campuses where they have lived, she and her husband most enjoyed being part of UMPI. She reminded students of the many unique opportunities they have had while earning their degrees.

“The words ‘teacher’ and ‘mentor’ describe many faculty members at smaller colleges, but at UMPI the faculty don’t just share knowledge, they create new knowledge. They allow students to work beside them in research,” she said. “That’s a rare thing at universities in this country.”

Don Zillman turned his attention to the many world challenges of the past three years, including climate change, political divisions and COVID. He encouraged students to do their part to take on similar challenges in their communities and to remember how their UMPI years have shaped them in those efforts.

UMPI President Ray Rice (left) presents former UMPI president Don Zillman with an honorary degree while Zillman’s wife Linda (far right) and UMPI Executive Director of University Advancement and External Affairs Debbie Roark look on. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / The Star Herald

“We don’t ask that you take on all these challenges, but please make support of this marvelous institution, the University of Maine at Presque Isle, part of what you do,” he said.