Graduates of the University of Maine at Presque Isle toss their caps in celebration on Saturday at the Wieden Hall Gym. Credit: Paul Bagnall / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The graduates of the University of Maine at Presque Isle will tackle new and unique challenges before heading out into an uncertain world, campus President Ray Rice told attendees Saturday at the university’s 114th commencement.

The campus awarded 275 degrees during the ceremony at the Wieden Hall Gym. The day was marked with reminders about the challenges facing the world today, with climate change and the war in Ukraine, but also optimism for recent advancements of artificial intelligence.

“We do all of the work to get our degrees, but it takes a village,” said graduate and commencement speaker Jerranecia Nicole Caddell, who received her bachelor of science in nursing.

A Birmingham, Alabama, native, she has lived in Aroostook County for 13 years and earned her way into the university through the Carleton Project, an educational program that provides opportunities for students who haven’t been successful in traditional school settings.

Caddell came from a background of poverty and had dropped out of high school at one point, she said.

She had begun writing a draft of her commencement speech some time ago, she said, and nearly missed the deadline. The day before the speech was due, she was in Bangor to complete her preceptorship at Eastern Maine Community College as part of a collaboration with the University of Maine.

Caddell will become a nurse in the emergency room at Northern Light A.R. Gould Hospital in Presque Isle, and wants to become more involved in nursing education. She intends to pursue master’s and doctorate degrees.

She told fellow graduates that no matter the money, accolades or goals they achieve, there is nothing without community. She touched on the use of artificial intelligence.

“I think AI could be useful in the future in terms of advancing the nursing profession, but it will not be able to replace the aspects of practicing as a nurse,” she said.

Samuel W. Collins, president of S.W. Collins Company for nearly three decades and former chair of the University of Maine System Board of Trustees, delivered the keynote address.

Collins and Mary Barton Akeley Smith, philanthropist and community development advocate, were presented with honorary doctor of humane letters degrees.

Artificial intelligence like ChatGPT can be used as an advantage to create productivity at work, despite its current limitations, Collins said.

As an experiment, Collins used ChatGPT to write some of his speech, but realized it couldn’t capture the range of emotions felt on graduation day or the learning experiences that students gain.

“Artificial intelligence never sat in your seat and experienced your range of feelings about the future,” Collins said.

Smith is a Presque Isle native and founder of the Rodney and Mary Barton Smith Family Foundation. Smith’s foundation has contributed to many projects around Presque Isle, including at both the university and Northern Maine Community College.

She spoke about how her late husband, Rodney Smith, was able to achieve his potential despite coming from a background of poverty because a teacher recognized his talents.

His success has benefited Aroostook County as the foundation supports health, education, wellness, economic development and open space in its philanthropic work.

“In spite of being born into poverty with no family support, Rodney’s experience is an example of facing adversity and building a successful life through grit, determination and the ability to embrace change,” Smith said.