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Profiles in Persistence

Among the more than 1,600 graduates who received degrees from the University of Southern Maine on May 8, 2021, are some whose academic journey is all the more remarkable because of the challenges they overcame — or helped others overcome. Below are our Profiles in Persistence — a look at some remarkable Huskies and their accomplishments over the past four years. 


For Marine Corps veteran Mary Swanson ’21, the path to USM was a winding one

A photo of USM graduate Mary Swanson

She dropped out of high school at 16. Joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 17. Got her GED and took some community college classes as her military career spanned the United States and Japan. She had two children. Left the military. And then she had an identity crisis.

"When I got out, I just kind of thought, 'If I'm not a sergeant, what am I?'" she says.

This spring, Swanson became a USM graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and plans to attend law school. She hopes one day to become a judge. Learn more about Swanson's journey at USM


Raul Gierbolini ’21 earns a bachelor's — and a head start on his master’s 

An image of Raul Gierbolini

The NCAA All-Region wrestler and William B. Wise Scholar-Athlete has already taken six classes toward a USM graduate degree in Public Health. It’s an unusual situation, taking graduate classes before finishing one's undergraduate degree. But for Gierbolini, who spent the past year thinking about the plight of public health in Puerto Rico, it’s the perfect path. Learn more about Gierbolini's journey at USM


Tiffany Dunn ’21 graduates six weeks after receiving a new heart

An image of Tiffany Dunn

She attended classes when walking even a few yards left her breathing hard and exhausted. When her health took a bad turn, which it often did, she’d complete assignments from a hospital bed. When her heart function plummeted, she went to school tethered to a 6-pound battery that ran the implanted mechanical pump keeping her alive. But on May 8, Tiffany Dunn celebrated two milestones. She graduated with her Bachelor of Arts in Social Work. And she did so with a new heart. Learn more about Dunn's journey at USM


McKellen Spiller ’21 commissions as the first Air Force Intelligence Officer from USM

A photo of McKellen Spiller

Spiller commissioned as an Intelligence Officer in the U.S. Air Force when she graduated from USM on May 8.. She was the only USM senior graduating from the Air Force ROTC program this year and the first Air Force Intelligence Officer to commission from USM in recent history. Learn more about Spiller's journey at USM


Graham Botto ’21 is already solving the problems he set out to fix

For 17 years, Graham Botto ’21 worked as a chef in Portland, Maine. He had a lot of success, but not a lot of time for family. And he was troubled by what he saw around him during his 60-to-80 hour weeks — employees with little access to mental health care, people who were marginalized, people who wound up with more troubles because they couldn’t get the help they needed early on. On May 8, Botto graduated with a Bachelor's in Social Work — and the satisfaction of having already improving the lives of others. Learn more about Botto's journey at USM


Now cancer-free, Jennifer Yazwinski ’21 graduates with a Master of Occupational Therapy 

A photo of Jennifer Yazwinski

Jennifer Yazwinski ’21 was two months away from starting her Master of Occupational Therapy program at USM when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was 2017, she was 41 and the married mother of two. She’d spent years finishing her prerequisites, and now that she was finally able to start the program, she received the shocking news that she had cancer. Learn more about Yazwinski's journey at USM.


Peter Paolucci ’21, who is on the autism spectrum, finds making art to be 'cathartic'

A photo of Peter Paolucci

Watercolor, charcoal, ink. Sometimes oils. Drawings that look explosive. Paintings that play with color and light. Peter Paolucci gives them titles like “Anxiety” and “Hope” and “Overload.” Paolucci, who is upfront about being on the autism spectrum, sometimes struggles to talk with people. That isn’t a problem with his artwork. “Art is kind of a way for me to express things I can’t really say in words,” he says. Learn more about Paolucci's journey at USM