AUGUSTA — For Courtney Allen and Dylan Morin and other graduates, Saturday’s ceremonies for the University of Maine at Augusta bore all the hallmarks of commencement: speeches, awards and a recognition of the people who have completed their academic degrees.
But in this, the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ceremonies were stamped with a mark of the times: the two ceremonies, one for the Class of 2020 and one for the Class of 2021, were both held virtually, debuting online Saturday at 10 a.m., and 2 p.m.
Before their ceremonies were streamed Saturday, two graduates — both speakers at their respective ceremonies — reflected on marking this milestone under circumstances no one could have imaged 18 months ago.
For Allen — who studied the intersections between the justice system, public policy and substance abuse for a bachelor of arts degree in interdisciplinary studies in 2020 — this commencement has been both the graduation that never ended and at the same time the one that never happened.
“I am not going to say I am not disappointed that we didn’t get to walk together, because I am,” Allen, 29, said. “But I have been thinking a lot about that, and I hope my class will flip that on its head.”
Not being able to walk across a stage to collect a degree is very small issue compared to everything else they have been through during the pandemic, and everything they’ve learned about themselves and about where they live.
“I feel like this is the great pause that all of America desperately needed,” Allen said. “We got to reckon with a lot of things.”
The great pause gave her some things she doesn’t want to lose, like the ability to slow down and spend more time with family and people having the time to take better care of themselves.
At the same time, people have been reckoning with racial justice and what it takes to support people who are in crisis.
“We’re having a community discourse around child care and what it means to be a frontline worker and what it means to be an essential worker,” she said. “Why don’t we pay our teachers (more)? We need teachers. One of the things I learned through all of this is that I am a wonderful student, but I am not a teacher, and I am so, so grateful for teachers.”
The graduation, delayed as it was, hasn’t delayed her in anyway. She’s the policy director for the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project, a grassroots organization to work for sensible drug policy reform. At the same time, she has completed the first year of the public policy master’s program at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine, and in November 2020, she was elected to an at-large seat on the Augusta City Council.
Allen celebrated with her family a year ago, and she was planning a small celebration Saturday.
For Dylan Morin, 27, commencement in the time of a pandemic comes with a mixed bag of emotions. Morin earned his bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in history. He’s been accepted into the graduate program at the University of Maine at Orono, where he’ll study English with a concentration in gender and literature studies.
“I am very excited to be done,” Morin said. “It’s nice to have a breath of fresh air and now I can go read a book outside and not look at a screen all day.”
That excitement is tempered by the disappointment in missing out on being recognized at the graduate banquet with friends and family, or shaking hands with college President Rebecca Wyke and receiving a diploma.
But even as he’s found the streaming ceremony to be impersonal, he said:
“Something I talk about in my graduation speech is just how we’ve kind of had an outbreak of perseverance and an outbreak of innovation and an outbreak of compassion. We’ve had to look at the future and say: OK, we can still get there. Even though it would be easier to shut off the computer and give up, you just have to log on. You have to keep trudging forward.”
Morin said he has not generally been a fan of technology, but one of the takeaways of finishing college in a pandemic has been building on skills using technology for research, for classes and to stay connected with friends.
“The biggest thing is that we can do it,” he said. “People can persevere.”