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PAE Holds 175th Commencement

Portland Adult Education (PAE) hosted its 175th graduation ceremony on June 22 at Merrill Auditorium. There were 65 graduates in the Class of 2023. PAE has been educating Portland adults since 1848.

PAE students can range in age from their late teens to senior citizens. They haven’t followed the usual path to high school graduation for many reasons. The reasons can include political strife interrupting their schooling in their home countries, homelessness, working full-time to support their families, immigrating to a new country and having to learn a new language and having a disability. Some PAE students have already completed high school or college, but in another country and language.

Adult education diplomas are earned in two ways. Students either successfully complete classes that award academic credits or pass the HiSET, a comprehensive high school equivalency test. In the Class of 2023, 48 students completed the required coursework and 17 students passed the HiSET. The commencement ceremony was an opportunity for all to gather to receive their diplomas. It also included remarks from PAE and district leaders as well as from student speakers, the awarding of scholarships, commendations to graduates and musical performances.

PAE English teacher Rochelle Yanike Hale served as master of ceremonies. She began by saying that one PAE Class of 2023 graduate was unable to attend this ceremony because she was caring for her injured mother. “She quietly took 24 classes over the course of six years while working and raising a family,” Yanike Hale said. “Her sacrifices and relentless hard work represent what our high school diploma graduates invest to sit on this stage tonight.”

Yanike Hale continued, “We also honor graduates who prepared to pass the HiSET exam, a challenging test under any circumstances, but particularly difficult when you have been out of school for years or are taking it in your third language.”

PAE Executive Director Abbie Yamamoto spoke next. “Congratulations to the Class of 2023,” she said. “I stand here in awe of what you all have done. But this is not an awe I feel as an outsider. It is an awe I feel because I share some of the experiences with many of you.”

Yamamoto noted that PAE students have had myriad experiences on their way to graduation. “Some of you were born in Maine and came back to school through us – maybe multiple times – and tonight, you made it to the end. Some of you were born in California, maybe Myanmar, maybe Angola, or maybe the Congo,” she said. “I was born in Japan and came to New York as a college student in 1997, 26 years ago. Wherever you were born, raised, or lived, a path has led you here, maybe a day after your arrival to Portland, maybe ten years later. But what you all have in common, what we all have in common, is that our paths are all unique and full of grit. I am deeply proud of how much all of you have already accomplished and excited for how much more you will do.”

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. Interim Co-Superintendents Aaron Townsend and Melea Nalli told the PAE Class of 2023 that “Portland Adult Education’s commencement is our capstone ceremony each year – and some might say we save the best for last!”

Townsend said that “a common and longstanding theme that we notice about PAE students is a determination to succeed. Our goal for all our students is to have you complete high school prepared and empowered to pursue your goals and achieve your dreams – and it’s clear that you members of the Class of 2023 are on the path to do that.”

Nalli said the class stands out in a number of ways. “One third of your class plans to head straight to college and a few of you graduates are already studying at Southern Maine Community College,” she said. “You have used the academic preparation you received through PAE's high school diploma program to access the free college opportunity that the state is offering to graduating classes from the years 2020 through 2023. Congratulations to you for using your achievements at PAE as a stepping stone to further your education to achieve your goals.”

She also said most of the graduates are employed and many wanted their high school credential to qualify for a pay raise at their jobs. “We honor your hard work to enhance your career prospects,” she said.

Nalli additionally noted that seven graduates not only earned a diploma this year, but also completed PAE certificates to work in renewable energy, banking, and healthcare.

She also praised the many PAE students who are parents to students in the Portland Public Schools. “While juggling parenting, studying and oftentimes working all at the same time is a significant challenge, it’s incredibly powerful for all of our students to see adults modeling lifelong learning and setting and reaching goals,” Nalli said. “This full continuum of learning is a special part of our Portland community.”

The following students spoke at the graduation ceremony:

Ifrah Gadidche, 43, began studying at PAE in 2015 after her arrival from Djibouti, where political unrest forced her to give up her career as a midwife. While working full time and raising five children, she attended PAE and graduated in 2022. Eager to return to healthcare, she has spent the past year in PAE’s College Transitions program preparing to study nursing at Southern Maine Community College.

Gadidche said her first goal at PAE was learning English, which she did while holding down a job in the laundry at a local hotel and raising a family. She thanked PAE faculty for their constant help and encouragement to help students succeed. “They have not given up on anyone and that’s why I love them,” she said.

Sedrina Rodrigues, 21, arrived in Portland with strong English skills and an engineering credential from Angola. Not only did she earn a high school diploma in a single year, but she also completed PAE’s Teller Training program and is now a bank employee.

“I cannot tell you the joy I feel after a long year of studying,” Rodrigues said. She said it took time to learn English and praised PAE’s “amazing teachers” who were always patient and “always put a smile on our face.” She told her fellow graduates, “It’s hard to start again, but yes, you can do it. It’s hard to learn again, but yes, you can do it!”

Numerous scholarships were presented to PAE graduates at the ceremony.

Also, Kiatumua Lukebana, who arrived in this country from Angola nine months ago, performed two musical selections: Lady Gaga’s “Always Remember Us This Way,” and “It’s a Beautiful Day” by Jermaine Edwards. For the second performance, Lukebana had graduates and audience members joyfully standing up and dancing at their seats.

PHOTO: Member of the PAE Class of 2023 Isidora Barros is all smiles after PAE's 175th graduation ceremony on June 22.

Portland Adult Education, part of the Portland Public Schools, serves approximately 2,000 adults each year in academic and English language classes, as well as enrichment and workforce classes, empowering students to achieve their educational, professional, and personal goals.

The Portland Public Schools is Maine’s largest school district, with approximately 6,500 students, and is also the most diverse. About one-third of the district’s students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken—a total of more than 50 languages. 49.8 percent of the district’s students are white and 50.2 percent are students of color.