PORTLAND – Kelly Akerley stood among a crowd of nearly 1,000 graduates Saturday with a smile plastered on her face.

“I’m just so excited,” she said.

Then tears came to her eyes.

“There were times I thought I would never get here.”

“Here” was the University of Southern Maine’s 131st commencement at the Cumberland County Civic Center, where she received a bachelor’s degree in health sciences that was 12 years in the making.

Akerley, 49, of North Bridgton is a single mother of seven children. One of them has special needs and Akerley herself has 65 percent hearing loss.

When she first started pursuing her degree, it was one class at a time. Frustrated with how long it was taking to finish, she started taking classes full time two years ago.

“I’m not even sure how I’ve done it,” she said of balancing the demands of her children and her professors. “I had to stay focused. I had to stay driven.”

She admits that her children, ranging in age from 8-year-old twins to a 29-year-old son, were a huge help. As were her neighbors and the congregation at First Congregational Church in Bridgton.

Akerley was among the many who stood when University President Selma Botman asked how many graduates were mothers, fathers or caregivers at the beginning of Saturday’s ceremony.

Almost every graduate stood when Botman asked how many held down a job during the course of their studies.

“It’s a wonderful day to celebrate your hard work and perseverance,” having balanced so many competing demands in life, she said.

Student commencement speaker Serena Gosbee of Sebago was graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communications. She echoed Botman’s sentiments.

“Gathering today to share our accomplishments with one another is what makes this a major event instead of just a crowd of people wearing funny hats. Each of us has walked our own path to arrive at the same destination, and each of us shares in today’s excitement and joy,” Gosbee said.

Linda Greenlaw, swordfishing boat captain and author of four books on commercial fishing, addressed the graduates after she received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.

A graduate of Colby College, Greenlaw said that when she “took her degree offshore,” her mother gave her the worst advice.

“She told me I was wasting my education,” Greenlaw said. “Your education can never be wasted. It’s impossible….It’s the greatest thing you can ever achieve and it cannot be taken away.”

She also shared the best advice her mother also gave her: “You be whatever you want to be.”

Greenlaw told graduates to open the door when opportunity knocks, live life deliberately and “ignore man-made barriers,” whether they are related to race, religion, sexual preference or gender.

Akerley hopes her perseverance sets that example for her children. She is the first in her immediate family to receive a college degree, despite the barriers she has faced.

“This is the eighth greatest thing I’ve ever done,” she said before the ceremony.

Pointing to the stadium seating from behind the stage, she added, “The other seven are out there.”

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]