Adult education graduation truly a new beginning

Over the past month, I’ve had the privilege of speaking at not one, but three, adult education graduations. Having a small part in the celebration of the huge accomplishments of these unique students has been one of the greatest honors I’ve had as your Commissioner of Education.

Earning a high school diploma requires incredible hard work and perseverance, even under the best of circumstances. But the best of circumstances isn’t something many adult education students have known when it comes to their schooling.

Though they don’t make the front pages like their traditional high school or collegiate counterparts, the stories of the graduates I have seen receive their high school diploma or its equivalent through adult education have been especially humbling and serve as a reminder of adult education’s critical role in our communities.

At the Merrymeeting Bay Adult Education graduation, a young man shared the story of how he survived the devastating earthquake in Haiti and was responsible for helping to count dead bodies in the street in its aftermath. Weeks later, an American acquaintance reached out on Facebook to see if he’d survived and ended up inviting him to the United States. He eventually came to Topsham and found adult education, an opportunity he seized. His language barrier resulted in him failing the GED math section five times before he finally passed, earning not just his high school credential but his CNA certification as well. He looks forward to caring for those in his adopted new community and to eventually getting his full nursing degree.

At the RSU 52 Adult and Community Education graduation in Turner, there was an overflow crowd in the auditorium as hundreds of friends and family turned out to honor the 35 students, 11 who were also being inducted into the Adult Education National Honor Society and six who speak English as their second language.  One graduate finally earned his high school credential after eight previous attempts. Another student had earned her GED back in late 2013 with the goal of finding full-time work with benefits. She was successful and six months later, her employer kindly gave her the night off so she could attend her graduation ceremony.

At Windham/Raymond Adult Education, the graduates ranged from teenagers to a woman who is 60 and recently earned her HiSET because a job she’s had for years now requires her to have a high school credential.  One graduate earned his adult education diploma while caring for his mother, who was fighting cancer.  Another student took classes each night in preparation for passing his HiSET, not sure where he would go to sleep when they let out.

As different as their stories are, the personal qualities these graduates relied on to finally earn their degrees are the same: the ability to problem-solve and multi-task, courage, personal responsibility, adaptability and an unwavering work ethic. I reminded them how valuable those characteristics are to 21st century employers and admissions counselors, and encouraged the graduates to continue to challenge themselves, including by pursue post-secondary education, which many of them have already committed to doing.

Graduation is an end, but for these Mainers, it’s really a new beginning. I was incredibly inspired by these students and cannot wait to see what they accomplish next. To them, and all of the members of the Class of 2014, congratulations! And to the dedicated educators and support staff who helped make the turning of those tassels possible, congratulations are due to you too, as is our thanks.

Please note: As schools across the state break for the summer, the Commissioner’s Update will move to a biweekly publication schedule through the end of August. Our next issue will publish on Thursday, July 3. And out of respect for your summer schedules, we’ll keep the update brief and instead of my weekly column, feature a selected dispatch in this spot each issue.