Portland Adult Education (PAE) hosted its 173rd graduation ceremony on June 24 in Merrill Auditorium. There were a total of 72 graduates in the Class of 2021. PAE has been educating Portland adults since 1848.
Graduating were 54 students who attained high school diplomas and 18 students who passed the HiSET test (formerly GED).
“After a fully remote year, it felt wonderful to have a ceremony in person,” said Anja Hanson, PAE academic advisor. “Many of our teachers met their students in person for the first time that evening. It was our first ceremony with a service dog.”
It was also the first time the ceremony was livestreamed so that those not able to attend in person could also watch, Hanson said. “We have heard that 70 people watched from their homes,” she said.
Rochelle Yanike Hale, a PAE teacher and master of ceremonies during the graduation exercises, said it felt “remarkable” to be finally gathered together in one venue after the first fully remote year in PAE’s history.
She praised the “flexibility and resilience” of the Class of 2021. She noted that many members of the class were essential workers during the pandemic, in places that included hospitals, assisted living facilities, grocery stores and warehouses, but they still managed to continue with their PAE studies remotely. “What a feat,” she said.
A few members of the class of 2020 joined the graduates on stage because their ceremony was remote last year, due to the pandemic. Hale said that both classes “made history by achieving their goals during a pandemic.”
PAE Executive Director Anita St. Onge said that the past year has been a time of incredible stress and loss for everyone at PAE but all worked very hard to meet the needs of the community. “To our students, teachers, staff and volunteers – congratulations on a job well done,” she said. “Know that you have and continue to make a difference in our community.”
St. Onge also said, “We must acknowledge the racial disparities that affect Black, Indigenous and people of color in our community.” She said inequities continue “to harm people of color and advantage white people” and said that “as a white-led organization serving primarily Black students, we know we have work to do.”
St. Onge said that PAE has “committed to being an antiracist, equity-driven organization” and that it will “continually examine our work and our systems to dismantle the institutionalized racism that exists at all levels.” PAE has established a racial equity advisory group that is working to establish recommendations for the school, St. Onge said.
Superintendent Xavier Botana congratulated the graduates. “We are incredibly proud of you,” he told them. “Every year, this ceremony is the capstone of my favorite time of year – graduation season.”
PAE’s graduation was the last of four commencement ceremonies for the Portland Public Schools. Deering, Casco Bay and Portland high schools held their graduations earlier in June. Botana noted that a total of more than 500 students in all four schools had ended “an important chapter of their lives, prepared and empowered to take the next steps in their educational and life journey.”
Botana, whose family came to this country from Cuba when he was a boy, said that at previous PAE ceremonies, he would tell graduates he knew firsthand how challenging their lives were because his grandparents learned English and prepared for the test to become U.S. citizens through adult education.
“But today,” Botana said, “I stand here recognizing I don’t understand the hardships and challenges that you’ve faced in getting to this stage because on top of what every other graduate of adult education programs over the years has had to face, you’ve done all of this in the midst of a once-in-a-century event – a global pandemic.”
He said PAE students had to adjust to learning online as they balanced work or lack of work while, for many of them, helping their children with their schoolwork, and also battling isolation and inequity. “I commend you for your resilience,” Botana said. “You have shown that you will show up, you will work hard and you will succeed.”
Botana also thanked PAE teachers, staff and volunteers. “I’m so proud of what Portland Adult Education accomplishes every year,” Botana said.
Graduate Djimi Bazonga Longi, 30, was the first of two student speakers at the ceremony. He said he previously was unsure he would be able continue to pursue his educational goals but said PAE “has helped me to dream once again.”
Hanson wrote this description of Longi: “He has been in the U.S. only two years, but he’s made a huge impact at PAE. While earning a second diploma (his first was from the Democratic Republic of Congo) at our school, he has volunteered as an interpreter, assisting with everything from placement testing to vaccination clinics. He also utilized his translation skills to help a parenting class offered by FEDCAP. His prior studies as an electrical engineer and employment with an airline in Brazil, as well as his fluency in French, Portuguese, and Lingala, may have prompted one teacher to describe him as ‘the perfect multilingual cultural liaison.’ Longi plans to continue to perfect his English and may study engineering or HVAC at Southern Maine Community College.”
Graduate Hodan H. Mohamed, 41, was the second student speaker. She said that it was a “real struggle to get where I am today” but now she has earned a high school diploma and wants to go to college. “Please don’t give up, no matter what happens,” she said. “Come to school, try come classes, get some help. Come out of the dark and get into the light.”
Hanson wrote that Mohamed “was struggling to get to PAE for classes prior to 2020. Parenting four young children meant that quality childcare was essential and difficult to manage. Finding work other than cleaning with limited English was also hard. When she lived in Uganda, she had worked as a receptionist and a manager, and she knew she needed to develop her language skills to improve her access to good jobs and the community. Last spring, the pandemic brought school to her home, and Mohamed thrived with remote classes. She has succeeded in earning a diploma, a goal she set in 2013 when she began studying at PAE. Mohamed plans to continue to learn so that she can teach her children and go to college.”
Mohamed was presented with a Robert Wood Scholarship. Wood was a former director of PAE and is chair of the Friends of Portland Adult Education.
Numerous scholarships were presented to other PAE graduates at the ceremony.
About Portland Adult Education: PAE, a part of the Portland Public Schools, typically serves approximately 4,000 adults each year, in academic and ELL classes, as well as workforce training programs and enrichment classes. About 50 percent of PAE students are immigrants learning English and gaining knowledge and skills to pursue their career goals and integrate more fully into the community.