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PAE’s 174th Commencement Held June 16

Portland Adult Education (PAE) hosted its 174th graduation ceremony on June 16 at Merrill Auditorium. There were 73 graduates in the Class of 2022. PAE has been educating Portland adults since 1848.

Adult education diplomas are earned in two different ways. Students either successfully complete classes that award academic credits or successful pass the HiSET, a comprehensive high school equivalency test. In the Class of 2022, 20 students passed the HiSET and 53 completed the required coursework. The ceremony was an opportunity for all to gather to receive their diplomas.

PAE Assistant Director Elizabeth Love, who served as master of ceremonies, noted that “this year, for the first time, half of our students have been learning in person and half in remote classes online, but today all of us gather to smile and cheer.”

Love congratulated the Class of 2022 for overcoming hardships to make it to graduation. She said that they “battled another year of the pandemic, but it did not deter or define them. Members of this class helped each other by rocking a newborn during an advising meeting or whisking kids into another room during online class. We have a husband and wife, a mother and daughter, an aunt and nephew, and many close friends among the graduates today.”

Love said that “if anything defines this class, it is a hunger for learning that defies age and adversity. One graduate is taking an English course she was unable to complete in 1958 when she married and joined her husband as he served in the Air Force. Another graduate has been raising and keeping pace with her granddaughter; both earned their diplomas this year. Some graduates trekked across continents and lived in shelters or hotels as they began their studies at PAE. Some used the high school diploma courses as a foundation, so that they can earn future degrees – even though they already have attained university degrees in other languages from other countries.”

Love also praised PAE Executive Director Anita St. Onge, who is retiring at the end of June. Love said that when St. Onge “arrived at PAE six years ago, her prior work had been in Haiti where she studied Creole. She had recent experience of being a newcomer with a language. Perhaps this is why you will find her on the first days of the term at the front door helping students in French to find their classrooms. Anita’s understanding of the power of language (she is an attorney too!) led her to hire staff with fluency in many languages and to push our community to elevate multilingualism while we taught English. But linguistic fluency was not her only passion; Anita oversaw the rapid transformation of a school that was fully face-to-face to one that is now constantly working on digital fluency for its community. A profound ‘merci’ to our multitalented Anita St. Onge!”

St. Onge gave a brief but emotional address, congratulating graduates and thanking everyone who welcomed her into the PAE family. “I soon learned what a special place this is,” she said.

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. Superintendent Xavier Botana told the PAE Class of 2022 that graduation is his favorite time of year. It not only marks an important chapter in the lives of students but also of their teachers, he said. “As an educator, this is the true testimony of what we work for across the system,” he said.

Botana, whose family came to this country from Cuba when he was a boy, said that adult education programs helped his family members learn English and succeed in their new country. However, he noted that his family were welcomed and supported, but immigrants today have to cope with the pandemic and an often unwelcoming attitude toward newcomers. “I don’t understand the hardships and challenges that you’ve faced in getting to this stage,” Botana said. But he told the graduates, “You’ve shown you’re ready and able to shoulder heavy burdens…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. “Every dollar we invest in our adult education program is not just a dollar invested in the students, it’s a dollar invested in their children and in our families and community…This is a city that understands that getting these graduates across the stage is an investment in the future of Portland.”

Graduate Zulma Yamile Lizarazo was the first of two class speakers at the ceremony.  She took more than 30 courses at PAE over the past two years in pursuit of her goal to become an accountant. Lizarazo said the fact that PAE offer many courses online made it easier for her to succeed as the mother of four children. In fact, she said she had trouble finding a babysitter so she could attend the graduation ceremony. “I would have asked my husband, but he’s here,” she said. He was on the stage with her, getting his own high school diploma.

Sophie Musasa Leu, who was a registered nurse in her country before coming to the United States, came to PAE to improve her English and earn a high school diploma to improve her job prospects here. She praised the “amazing teachers who helped a lot” and said that while English is the sixth language she speaks, it has now become her favorite. “Language gives you a way to reach your goal,” Leu said.

Numerous scholarships were presented to PAE graduates at the ceremony and graduates participated in musical performances.

Watch the ceremony on YouTube