University of Southern Maine President Glenn Cummings gives a diploma and two thumbs up to North Haven Island native Serena Wade as she graduates from the accelerated nursing program in a drive-though ceremony in Gorham on Friday. Graduates also received their traditional nursing pins. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

GORHAM, Maine — The coronavirus pandemic shut down in-person learning last spring, but 40 students in the University of Southern Maine’s accelerated nursing program still received their diplomas on Friday. They picked up their degrees — and were “pinned” — in a drive-thru ceremony on campus, in front of the Costello Sports Complex.

The tradition of conferring pins to nursing graduates goes back 150 years in the United States, and its roots were planted in Europe’s middle ages. Each pin symbolizes the end of an educational journey and the beginning of a sacred career dedicated to the alleviation of suffering. The ceremony is more meaningful and emotional than graduation for many students. USM’s fast-track program is the only nursing program in the state that managed to keep the tradition alive this year.

“The pin is a symbol of the values held within the profession of nursing,” said Brenda Petersen, the associate dean of nursing. “The student then takes it and, many times, wears it on their uniform. It’s a very long-held tradition.”

Petersen handed out pins, cookies and hand sanitizer to each car as it drove past. Then, President Glenn Cummings, in full regalia and rubber gloves, handed out the blue-bound diplomas. Addresses by Petersen, Cummings and others were broadcast over the college radio station, WMPG, so each graduate could tune in. Then, their names were read.

“We take this time to honor you and your place in health care history,” Petersen said.

The nurse pinning ceremony traces its heritage back to 12th-century European monks who tended to sick and injured knights of the crusade. The monks wore Maltese crosses on their arms, indicating their dedication to healing and Christianity.

Famous nurse and educator Florence Nightingale began the modern version of this tradition in the 1850s. According to the Museum of Nursing at La Salle University, the Nightingale School of Nursing at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London was the first to award badges to nursing graduates. In the United States, New York City’s Bellevue Hospital was the first to award a pin, in 1880. The gold pin featured a crane in the center, for vigilance, encircled by a band of blue for constancy, and an outer band of red for mercy and relief of suffering.

USM’s pins handed to graduates were silver with the university pillar of knowledge logo engraved on it.

Like all of Maine’s other institutions of higher learning, USM canceled its plans for any kind of in-person graduation ceremony this year, due to the pandemic. Instead, it opted for a virtual affair. Its traditional four-year nursing students graduated with their classmates but missed out on a pinning ceremony.

The accelerated nursing program operates on a different timetable. It takes anyone with a bachelors, or higher, degree, turning them into a nurse in just 15 months. But it’s tough.

“It’s focused solely on nursing and it’s incredibly rigorous,” said Petersen. “Students make a lot of sacrifices to get through this challenging program.”

North Haven Island native Serena Wade, a mother of two, earned her bachelor’s degree at Bowdoin College and an education masters while living out West. She taught school for a while aboard a schooner but also had experience working as an EMT on the island and running a birth center in Oregon.

“I’ve waffled between teaching and medicine basically my whole life,” Wade said.

Last year, she decided to come back to Maine and get a nursing degree through USM’s fast-track program.

“It’s very intense,” she said, “way more intense than I was really prepared for. I mean it was — very intense. I’m so glad I got to start it before the pandemic.”

Wade estimated she, along with her classmates, dedicated something like 40-60 hours a week to classes and study, finishing up with a clinical placement this summer. The classmates formed intense relationships from the start and that’s part of what made this pinning ceremony so special.

“It’s still a drive through and we don’t get to stand next to each other, and hug each other,” she said. “But at least it’s something in person. We get to see each other, and our professors — and all the people that helped us get through this — again.”

A summer downpour let loose just as the first diploma was given out on Friday. It did little to dampen the mood of jubilation. When it ended, several minutes later, professors and their caps and gowns were soaked — but a rainbow lit up the sky over the flying saucer-shaped dining hall.

“Their commitment in the face of the pandemic is inspiring,” Petersen said. “It’s on a level that’s hard to describe. They’re all so eager to get out there, on the front line, working.”

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.