Meet the 2019 student commencement speaker

By Alyson Peabody, News Editor

From a small farming village in Yantarne, Ukraine to Old Orchard Beach, Maine, Yanina Nickless has carried her passion for learning across the world. She studied English, German and world literature at Kherson State University in Ukraine and was a kindergarten English teacher for two years until the 2014 revolution. The tumultuous state during the revolution inspired Nickless to help her country find its way.

Nickless visited the United States for the first time the following summer. She wanted to go somewhere safe that reminded her of Ukraine and Maine fit the bill. “I did not know what Maine was. I had to Google it,” Nickless laughed.

She met her husband, Sean Nickless, in the summer of 2014 in Old Orchard.
Upon returning to Maine the following year, she applied to USM’s international studies track, majoring in political science with an economics minor. “I love my country a lot, so I would like to do something for my country,” she said. Becoming an ambassador or an international lawyer would allow Nickless to be a voice between the United States and Ukraine.

Nickless credits USM and her professors for expanding her worldview. “When I came firstly to USM, people would say that English wasn’t my first language and it’s not a good idea to be an ambassador,” she said. “My Poli-Sci professor, Tim Ruback, really pushed me and believed in me. He said that my accent is not something that should prevent me from going somewhere.”

USM’s student body embraces diversity made of “parents, veterans, immigrants, and people with lives going on.” Nickless sees this as the university’s greatest strength. “I have heard so many times people say ‘it’s not Harvard, it’s just USM.’ Yeah, it’s not Harvard. It is better.”

Administrative Assistant for the Department of History and Political Science, Nicole Leclerc, was another person that Nickless said had a positive influence on her. The two worked together for the Maine Model United Nations (UN) Program.
Nickless has been actively involved in Maine Model UN for several years, stepping into the role of Secretary General in 2018.

As Secretary General, Nickless delivered a speech to 600 students. One of her close friends found that speech to be so inspiring that she encouraged Nickless to apply to become the student commencement speaker for her 2019 graduating class. “I went to the website on Friday, and the deadline to apply was that Friday. They had to see the whole speech. So, I typed it really fast, as fast as I could, and I applied,” Nickless said. Five speeches were chosen and Nickless was asked to present it to a board. After a callback, she was notified that she would be delivering her speech at graduation.

Nickless plans on taking a year or two before returning to USM to earn her Master’s Degree. During this time, she will decide whether she wants to attend Law School to study international law or take another route. “If it’s not law school, it’ll be something international,” she said. “I would really like to work with my country. I am looking for a job here and in Ukraine to find something that would fit both.”
Nickless is preparing for the 2019 Model UN Conference taking place May 15, 16 and 17. This summer she has an internship in Kennebunkport at the Town Hall. “After that, we’ll see,” she said.

Being separated from her parents who live more than 4,700 miles away has not been easy. She said that she is frequently homesick, but that she and her husband Skype with her parents every day. “Being an only child and living so far away is hard for them,” she said.
Her father, Makarenko Oleksandr, is a fruit farmer and her mother, Makarenko Olena, works in a library where she spends a lot of time with children.

She hopes that one day her family will be able to visit her and her husband’s home in Maine. “I really want them to be proud of me,” she said about her parents and spouse.
Nickless will be delivering her speech during the Commencement Ceremony on May 11 at the Cross Insurance Arena.

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