Michelle Smith will be graduating with an English degree from the University of Maine at Augusta.
By Susan McMillan
AUGUSTA -- One grew up in Rwanda, the other in the Kennebec County town of Oakland.
One wants to design buildings, and the other wants to build up communities overseas.
Both are top scholars in the class that will graduate from the University of Maine at Augusta on Saturday.
Architecture student Juste Tresor Gatari and English and photography student Michelle Smith are this year's winners of the Distinguished Student Award, based on their academic work, extracurricular leadership and community service.
They will be among about 400 students walking at tomorrow's commencement, which will begin at 10 a.m. at the Augusta Civic Center. It is open to the public.
According to UMA, 647 are graduating, which includes 411 with bachelor's degrees and 236 with associate degrees.
This year's commencement speaker is Sharon Rose, co-anchor of WCSH-TV's "Morning Report."
Gatari and Smith will be among a handful of special honorees at the ceremony. Cianbro Corp. President and CEO Peter Vigue will receive an honorary doctorate of humane letters; Eloise Vitelli, director for program and policy development at Maine Centers for Work, Women and Community, will receive the Distinguished Achievement Award; and UMA Board of Visitors Chairman Lon Walters will receive the Distinguished Service to UMA Award.
A total change
When Gatari, 25, arrived in Augusta in 2008 to study architecture, even the weather was foreign.
"Everything was a total change to me," Gatari said. "It was like starting a whole new life."
Gatari had spent one year in university in Rwanda, taking general courses, with no guarantee that he'd gain admission to the engineering program. Civil engineers make a good living in Rwanda, he said, and the universities don't have the capacity for all the interested students.
So Gatari began to look abroad, but he found that most American universities were too expensive. He chose UMA for its affordability, despite the fact that it has no engineering program.
Gatari has come to love the theory behind architecture, especially tectonics -- the relationship between the parts of a structure and how it shapes the way people experience it. He said architecture has taught him to think conceptually.
Gatari's senior project was designing an office and workshop for Station Maine, a Rockland organization that provides free boating opportunities to young people. The facilities had to span land and water and incorporate rubble left on the site from a fire.
He plans to get a master's degree in structural engineering to broaden his knowledge and skills, then work as an architect. He hasn't decided if there's any particular field in which he'd like to work.
"I like public facilities because it's about people, and it's always interesting to see people interact with their built environments," Gatari said.
Gatari, who lost his parents in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, said he felt warmly welcomed by people at UMA and in Augusta. He attends the Green Street United Methodist Church, where fellow congregants have helped him raise money for expenses such as getting to Bangor this semester for classes he had to take as engineering pre-requisites.
Gatari also has thrown himself into extracurricular life at UMA, often helping to organize architecture program events or going on university trips, such as one to Washington this week.
He said he's excited about graduate school but a bit nervous about moving to Boston and enrolling at Northeastern University.
"The worst part is I'm starting anew again," Gatari said. "I'm leaving people I'm already familiar with, and it was feeling like home."
For Smith, enrolling at UMA was part of returning home after a year in California following her graduation from Messalonskee High School in Oakland in 2006.
"I wanted to get away from Maine, and now that I'm back, I love it," said Smith, who is 24 and the daughter of Diane and Brian Smith, of Oakland. "It took going away for me to appreciate it."
Smith majored in English and minored in photography, which she appreciates as a nonverbal, creative complement to all the reading and writing involved in her English courses.
One of the highlights of her time at UMA was a class about graphic novels, where she found "two of my great passions, art and literature, combined into one medium."
However, she most loved an interdisciplinary program called a "cluster course." She helped organize and went on a trip to Nicaragua that combined study of subjects such as memoir writing and reading, Spanish, digital imaging and American studies.
"By far, those have been my favorite classes," Smith said. "I think you learn so much more when you're bridging subjects and bridging ideas, plus the experience of traveling."
Along with a service trip to Guatemala, Smith's time in Nicaragua got her interested in international development, a field that focuses on improving quality of life through education, infrastructure, health care and other means.
Smith was awarded the George Mitchell Peace Scholarship, a top honor in the University of Maine System, which she used last fall to study international development at University College Cork in Ireland.
Smith knows she wants to work overseas, but she's still deciding whether it should be in the Middle East, Asia, or elsewhere. She has studied French in addition to Spanish and is most interested in doing humanitarian work on a personal level rather than working on policy.
Smith also helped launch the YoUMA summer camp for high school students and was nominated for the Distinguished Student Award by six professors. She attributed that to the relationships she was able to build with professors because of UMA's small classes.
Smith said she enrolled at UMA because it was close to home and affordable, but she didn't realize how much it had to offer.
"I'm excited to graduate," she said. "It's bittersweet because I've really loved being here; but again, I feel like there's always going to be something to come back to here, with the people."
Susan McMillan -- 621-5645
Juste Tresor Gatari will be graduating with an architecture degree from the University of Maine at Augusta.
© 2013 The Kennebec Journal - All Rights Reserved.
274 Western Avenue, Augusta, Maine 04330