PORTLAND – The first indication that this wasn’t your typical high school graduation was the graduates’ tattoos and goatees, their nose and lip rings, and a few gray hairs.

The graduates came from 12 countries, and 18 cities and towns in Maine, and most were older than 25.

Thirty-five of them took courses while incarcerated in the Cumberland County Jail. Another 34 attended Portland Adult Education’s Street Academy, based in the Preble Street Teen Center.

Despite their ages, conflicts in their homelands, full-time jobs and families, nothing could prevent these graduates from receiving their degrees.

During Portland Adult Education’s graduation ceremony Thursday night at Merrill Auditorium, 72 people received high school diplomas or GEDs.

Rob Wood, co-director of Portland Adult Education, said 230 people graduated in the class of 2010, but only 72 elected to march onto the stage, where Superintendent Jim Morse awarded their diplomas.

Wood said the graduates ranged in age from 18 to 78. It can take, on average, two to 10 years for some to earn diplomas, largely because of job and family obligations.

“We are here tonight to celebrate the bold choice these students made. It was not an easy choice, but all of these graduates have chosen to keep growing and learning,” said Pamela Meader, chairwoman of the Portland Adult Education math department.

Tichot Pout Neyail Yei made the choice to leave war-torn Sudan to pursue a new life in the United States. He lived in San Diego, where he kept falling asleep during adult education classes because he worked the night shift at a convenience store.

In late 2003, he moved to Portland, got a job at Barber Foods and began taking courses through Portland Adult Education.

“It has been a long, long journey, but I’m proud to be in Portland, Maine, and I’m proud to be in the land of opportunity,” said Yei, who is 36 and plans to attend Southern Maine Community College.

Jin Mei Luo, a native of China, arrived in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1996 with an eighth-grade education.

She and her husband decided to move to Maine because they felt it would be a good place to raise their son. She spoke very little English.

Luo worked full time while raising a child, but learned to speak English and now plans to pursue a medical studies degree at SMCC. “It’s wonderful,” Luo, 39, said of the Portland Adult Education program.

Lynne Perry of Falmouth graduated from Falmouth High School in 1979, but chose not to attend college.

After sailing around the world and running her own company, which went bankrupt in 2007, Perry found a new career path through Portland Adult Education.

At 49, she now takes college preparation courses, which she hopes will lead her to a career as a veterinary technician.

“I wouldn’t have known about this program if I hadn’t hit rock bottom,” she said. “It’s the best-kept secret.”

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]