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May 13—AUBURN — It was still an hour or so until Central Maine Community College was to graduate its latest class, but plenty of families and graduates were already gathering at The Colisee.

Why not? The weather was beautiful and with nearly 400 students graduating, there was plenty to celebrate.

Standing outside in the sun around 5 p.m., 24-year-old Avery Gagnon, a stethoscope around her neck, was preparing to experience something she’d missed out on two years earlier.

She graduated from the University of Maine in Orono in 2020 with a nutrition degree, but of course that was smack dab in the middle of COVID-19 hysteria, so nobody graduated in the traditional way. No hanging out with giddy classmates, no strolling up to the stage to collect diplomas.

“We got robbed of a graduation back then,” Gagnon said, “so this is extra special.”

Graduating from CMCC was tough work, said Gagnon, of Lewiston. Tougher than what she had expected when she first enrolled.

“Nursing school was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said.

But there she was, just about an hour away from stepping up to that stage to collect her diploma. At her side stood her mother-in-law, Amanda Bellegarde.

Proud? You could say that.

“She makes us proud every single day,” said Bellegarde, fussing with her daughter-in-law’s gown and cap. “My son is blessed to have her in his life, as are we. This is something she’s worked really hard for and it does make it extra special that we get to witness her accomplishment.”

It was a night of individual and collective successes put on full display.

A Lewiston woman was named to the All-Maine Academic Team and another from Sabattus was named the Maine Community College system’s student of the year.

All of this from a group of students who spent the bulk of their academic lives under the harsh restrictions of COVID-19.

In her commencement address, graduate Miranda Mae Kelly of Camden noted the many difficult circumstances that had to be overcome by all to make it to graduation day.

“I know how hard you all worked to get here — during a global pandemic, nonetheless,” she said. “We surely are a unique class!”

Kelly recalled how, when the pandemic first appeared, students had no idea what it was going to mean for their academic careers.

“Our lives,” she said, “had been flipped upside down.”

She recalled the ping-pong nature of schooling during that time, with students going back to classes only to be shuffled back home for another round of remote learning.

With the job market in disarray in the outside world, students had additional stresses about their futures, too, even as they struggled day to day to complete their school work.

“I don’t really have words for what we have all accomplished through the pandemic,” Kelly told her classmates. “I just know that it was hard, and full of adversity. Please take a moment to remember what you overcame to sit here tonight.”

Kelly was selected as a member of the All-Maine Academic Team, along with Emily Schmidt of Lewiston. But Kelly devoted most of her speech to praise and admiration for her peers. She also reminded them of one key concept: strength through adversity.

“We have worked rigorously and relentlessly and most importantly, we have persevered!” she said. “You know you’re going to face adversity in life, but I need you to remember when you go out there into the world that you can do anything you set your mind to. You have achieved so much already.”

Earning the highest honor bestowed by the Maine Community College System — Student of the Year — was Julia Noel of Sabattus, who graduated with president’s honors in early childhood education.

Presidents honors are bestowed on students who graduate with a grade point average of 3.9 or greater.

Noel was also a member of the college’s women’s soccer team and volunteers with Andro United, an indoor youth soccer program in Lewiston.

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