USM celebrates 143rd Commencement with alumnus and New York Times writer Neil Genzlinger ’77

Governor Janet Mills tells graduates that Maine ‘will always take you in’

The University of Southern Maine celebrated its 143rd Commencement on Saturday, May 6th with nearly 1,000 graduates crossing the Cross Insurance Arena stage.

Governor Janet Mills joined University President Jacqueline Edmondson, featured speaker Neil Genzlinger ’77, and student speaker Nadine Bravo ’23 in wishing the best for the class that persevered despite the pandemic and countless personal challenges.

“I hope you will always think of this university, this community and this state as home,” Mills told the packed arena. “Have a fulfilling career, one and all, happy and productive life.”

“We’ll always take you in,” said Mills, who was the University’s featured speaker in 2019.

Neil Genzlinger, a 1977 graduate who went on to work as a New York Times journalist, was honored with a 2023 Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award and served as the keynote speaker.

He talked about his early years as a reporter, working for Waterville’s Central Maine Morning Sentinel as its Franklin County bureau chief. He humorously described his career’s biggest mistake, a typo that described a “big car contest” instead of Chester Greenwood Day’s “big ear  contest.”

“I have carried the burden of that mistake with me for 46 years,” Genzlinger said, “I want to thank you, President Edmondson, for giving me the opportunity to get this crushing weight of guilt off my conscience.” For students, the moral of the story was a plea to be vigilant of mistakes at a time when separating fact from fiction is becoming more difficult than ever.

Neil Genzlinger ’77 and Interim Provost Adam Tuchninsky

“It’s going to be up to you to catch your own mistakes,” he said. “Today is the day you start thinking for real.”

Student Speaker Nadine Bravo, a mother of three who is becoming a teacher, spoke about how the University helped her persevere and succeed.

“I have found this belonging within the USM community,” Bravo said. “It is the best that could have happened to me. USM has given us opportunities to thrive and blossom. The books we read and the homework we completed could not have taught us the life experiences we gained.”

This was the first USM commencement for Edmondson, who joined the University in July 2022.

“You faced personal challenges. And yet, you pursued educational goals and you were unwavering in your hope for a new and better future,” Edmondson said. “As students, you were asked to complete the typical academic work through a range of modalities – remote, hybrid, hyflex, and in person. You took classes from your bedrooms, your kitchens, your cars, your classrooms, and other places. You accomplished much while also fielding tremendous challenges.”

“And here you are!”  the president said.



2023 Student Speaker Nadine Bravo has thrived while pushing herself at an extraordinary pace. The single mother of three has earned her Master of Education degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages while also pursuing a Master of Education in Teaching and Learning World Language (German and Spanish). She has spent her recent semester student teaching at Saco’s Thornton Academy while also pursuing an online Native American Studies certificate program from Montana State University.

Prior to attending USM, Bravo worked at a local grocery store for nine years. She dreamed of going to graduate school but was too afraid to lose her children’s benefits and end up in debt. When she suffered a work injury that prevented her from working for two years, she knew it was her time. Her comeback also includes overcoming intergenerational trauma (having grown up in East Germany in the 1980s), suffering an additional life threatening injury and earning credit for previous schooling at Moscow State University and Martin Luther University in Halle, Germany.

Student Speaker Nadine Bravo ’23

She was named the 2022 Graduate Assistant of the Year at the University of Southern Maine.

Neil Genzlinger ’77 served as the commencement speaker and was honored with the 2023 Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award. This award recognizes an outstanding graduate of the University of Southern Maine, whose exceptional professional accomplishments bring honor to the University. As Commencement speaker, Genzlinger will draw on his long and distinguished career in journalism and the arts, a journey that began while he was an undergraduate at USM. 

Genzlinger is a former theater and television critic and current feature obituary writer at The New York Times. With thousands of bylines to his credit, his writing has appeared in Down East Magazine, Harper’s, Food & Wine, Smithsonian Magazine, and many other publications, in addition to The Times. In 2017, Genzlinger came to campus to lead an interactive discussion with students about his journalism career and the shifts that have occurred over four decades in the newspaper business.

Chana Wingard ’23 sings the National Anthem

Genzlinger is also a book author and a playwright with a fondness for offbeat humor. His plays have been performed at the New York International Fringe Festival and he is a three-time Moth Storytelling Champion. 

As a student, Genzlinger gained his first newspaper experience editing the Free Press, the University’s college newspaper, which he considered great preparation for his future career. In 1977, he graduated with a degree in history from USM’s predecessor school, University of Maine Portland-Gorham, after being named Outstanding Senior Man, the University’s highest honor along with Outstanding Senior Woman. Genzlinger began his career at the Central Maine Morning Sentinel in Farmington. He later earned a master’s in journalism from Penn State University and went on to positions with the Hartford Courant and Washington Post, before joining The New York Times in 1994.

In 2000, while still a copy editor, Genzlinger began reviewing for The Times and later became a full-time television and culture critic, noted for discovering worthy TV shows, plays, and movies that were off the beaten track. He and his wife, Donna Genzlinger, are the proud parents of two daughters. Emily is a public defender in Louisiana and his frequent marathon running partner. His other daughter, Abby, has Rett Syndrome, which has led to his special interest in the world of disabilities.

A smile reflected the happy mood as a student enters the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland ahead of the 2023 Commencement.

In recent years, he has offered invaluable support to USM’s Great University Campaign, the largest fundraising campaign in the University’s history. In fact, Genzlinger was the very first USM alum that Dr. Jacqueline Edmondson met as the new President of USM. Working with his longtime friend and classmate, alumnus and actor, Tony Shalhoub ’77, he has advanced efforts to build a new Center for the Arts on USM’s Portland campus.  We are grateful for Neil’s contributions to this long-awaited signature project, and proud to call him our 2023 Commencement speaker and Distinguished Alumni Achievement Honoree.