PORTLAND – Wearing similar black robes and mortarboards, they shook hands for the first time Sunday, moments before their formal graduation from Southern Maine Community College.

“Hi,” said 16-year-old Rachel Champoux of Westbrook. “Nice to meet you.”

“Gee,” said 83-year-old Robert Witham of Portland, “you’ve got cold hands.”

Champoux and Witham are the youngest and oldest graduates in the 64-year history of SMCC, formerly Southern Maine Technical College.

Witham remembers an even earlier incarnation, the Maine Vocational Technical Institute in Augusta. He was a 1952 graduate and tells of the whole class being photographed on the steps of the state Capitol.

Sunday marked his first graduation ceremony since in more than half a century. Also receiving diplomas Saturday inside the Cumberland County Civic Center were 912 other students, the largest graduating class in school history.

“For community colleges, the primary mission is access to higher education,” said James O. Ortiz, the retiring SMCC president. “Our job is to help people who never really thought about going to college, to open the doors for them and allow them in regardless of their background, age or ethnicity.”

Ortiz said the school welcomes not only recent high school graduates, but also people who are changing careers and looking for a new way of life.

“In that sense, we’re the American dream,” he said. “We help people reach the dream of the United States. If you work hard and believe in yourself, you can make it.”

Witham enrolled at MVTI after serving in World War II. He earned a living as a machinist until being laid off three years ago from his job at Nichols Portland, a supplier of automotive components.

Unable to find work, he came to SMCC and spoke with John Bolduc, chair of the integrated manufacturing department.

“He’d been a toolmaker all his life, a manual machinist, and now it’s all done by computers,” Bolduc said. “He said, ‘John, I’d like to learn some (computerized numerical control) machinery,’” in which numerical values corresponding to desired tool or control positions are generated by a computer.

Given Witham’s practical experience, Bolduc waived first-year requirements. Witham proved a diligent student and was a hit with his younger classmates.

“He brought a whole new perspective to my students,” Bolduc said. “They liked having him around. Called him ‘Gramps.’

On Sunday, Witham received an associate in applied science degree in integrated manufacturing technology.

Champoux enrolled at SMCC at 14, after having finished her high school requirements at home and taking half a dozen courses at the University of Southern Maine.

Her mom had taught her and her older brother David — who graduated from Clarkson University earlier this month — since Rachel was halfway through kindergarten.

“I was doing fine in school,” she said, “but my mom wanted to home-school my brother. She asked me if I wanted to be home-schooled, and I said yes.

“We never formally said what grade you’re in. I just kept working at my own pace until my mom said, ‘I’ve basically taught all I can. Do you want to try college?’

Champoux made the daily 30-minute commute from her home in Westbrook to the South Portland campus, first being driven by her mother, Julie, or father, Ron. In January, she earned her driver’s license and can now take care of her own transportation.

The community college seemed a better fit for her than USM, where she plans to continue her education.

“I’m kind of interested in everything, so it was hard to pin down what I want to focus on,” she said. “At SMCC, I was able to figure that out, so it’s a really great thing I went there.”

After working with an SMCC robotic team, Champoux knew she wanted to focus on computer science and artificial intelligence. Last spring she helped build a remotely operated vehicle and was part of an SMCC team that took it to Hawaii for an international underwater competition.

She wrote about the experience, not simply on the technical side but also involving teamwork and leadership, and wound up being honored as a New Century Scholar, one of 20 nationwide.

She also chaired the Student Senate’s activities committee and was elected president of the school’s Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.

On Sunday, she received an associate degree in liberal studies, with a math concentration. She leaves with a 3.98 grade point average, the only blemish an A-minus in pre-calculus.

“It was a really tough course,” she said. “It’s funny, because I’m a math major and I really enjoy math, but I worked hard for that A-minus. I’m proud of it.”

Champoux will take a summer course in microcomputer hardware at SMCC before enrolling at USM in the fall.

After a year studying at USM, she plans to finish her undergraduate degree at the Rochester Institute of Technology, which informed her of her acceptance last week.

As for Witham, now with diploma in hand, his future isn’t quite as certain. Asked about his plans, he shrugged.

“Go look for a job, I guess.”

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

gjordan@pressherald.com