PORTLAND — Sarah Bolens started college at age 18 but didn’t finish.
Twenty years later, the Lisbon Falls woman stood in the Cumberland County Civic Center, wearing a black cap and gown and a big smile.
Bolens received a bachelor’s degree Saturday during the University of Southern Maine graduation ceremony, after earning her required credits at the USM’s Lewiston-Auburn College.
A recent intern at New Beginnings in Lewiston, Bolens hopes to help troubled youths. The feeling of graduating was “overwhelming,” she said. “I’m definitely proud of myself. It’s taken a long time to get here.”
Bolens was among 900 graduates in one of Maine’s largest commencements. It took 30 minutes for the graduates and faculty to march in. As they filed in, graduates scanned the audience, their faces lighting up as they found family and friends.
Of those who attended USM’s L-A College, 84 received four-year degrees and 29 earned master’s degrees. The grads included Adam Johnson, 22, of Turner, and Jessica Buonaiuto, 26, of Brunswick.
Johnson, a graduate of Leavitt Area High School in 2005, said he planned to continue his education to become a nurse practitioner. Buonaiuto, the mother of two, said she was excited about starting a new life that will involve moving and a career in early childhood education.
Going to college while raising children was a struggle, Buonaiuto said. “You can only do homework while they’re at school.” The faculty and students were supportive, she said. “It’s like a close-knit family.”
As the ceremony began, USM President Selma Botman welcomed the Class of 2010, saying she was proud of them and that their hard work and perseverance will prepare them for a lifetime of personal growth.
Student speaker Jared Karrer of Eliot said he thought he knew what his future would involve, but he was met by surprises and change during his college journey.
He enrolled in political science, but discovered “the last thing I want to be is a politician.”
Initially, he didn’t think diversity had much to do with him. “Again, my expectations were erroneous.” He said he sat in classes with Somali, Sudanese, Chinese and Native American students. Those experiences were enriching and enlightening.
A member of the Maine Army National Guard, Karrer was supposed to leave for deployment to Iraq in December. Four days before Christmas, he received word his unit would not be going.
He was confused. “It turns out the war I had been intensely training for … I was destined not to fight.”
His advice was to have high expectations, “but not to set them in stone. Don’t tether your dreams; rather, let them float as if releasing your grip on a cluster of balloons.”
Portland author Phillip Hoose urged graduates not to give up.
Hoose wrote a song and a children’s book, “Hey, Little Ant” about whether a child should squish and kill an ant or let it live. The story provoked discussions of everything from bullying to biology to the ethics of killing, Hoose said. He tried to get his book published, but it was rejected by publishers again and again. He kept at it.
Finally, the book was published. It took off. It’s been sold by the Scholastic book club, produced for the Public Broadcasting System’s television show, “Reading Rainbow,” and has sold more than a million copies.
No other project taught him so much about how to work, Hoose said.
“It may take you several jobs to reach your ideal, but keep going,” he said. “Learn what you can from rejection and move on. It happens to everyone.”