PORTLAND – Eileen Foley, a 36-year-old widow from South Portland, and Selvin Arevalo, a Guatemalan immigrant who is fighting deportation, were among more than 200 students who were recognized Thursday night during Portland Adult Education’s 163rd graduation ceremony.

Though not all of them were able to attend the ceremony, a total of 34 students received high school diplomas and 176 passed their General Educational Development high school equivalency tests.

Foley, a graduation speaker, has been in Portland Adult Education’s college transition program, which give students who already have high school diplomas a chance to refresh their academic skills before applying to college.

Foley has been accepted at Southern Maine Community College and will study business administration in the fall.

The audience at the Merrill Auditorium was a blend of very young children, spouses and grandparents who supported the graduates’ efforts. School officials said the graduates ranged in age from 18 to 68.

“In spite of poverty, war, family crisis, holding down full-time jobs and illnesses, all the people here used their imagination and imagined being here tonight,” Superintendent Jim Morse said.

Foley’s journey may have been one of the most improbable. She and her husband, Michael, had just bought a house in South Portland and were raising a young son, Seamus, when Foley woke up one morning in July 2009 and found that her husband, who was 47, had died in his sleep.

“I was empty. I did not know what I was going to do,” said Foley, who was a stay-at-home mother at the time. “It wasn’t part of the plan.”

Foley, who graduated from Catherine McAuley High School in 1994, began studying for her college placement tests and found she has a knack for math and science.

“I wanted Seamus to know that you work for what you get in life. Education is very important,” Foley said. “I couldn’t do that if I was hiding in my house.”

A better life is also what drove Arevalo, a Portland resident, to return to school and earn his high school diploma.

Arevalo, 25, was in the news last year for his arrest after he fled from a minor traffic accident — a few weeks before he was scheduled to get his diploma.

He fled Guatemala when he was 14, settled in Portland and became an active member of the community.

“My biggest barrier was the language. I didn’t know how to say hi or how are you. When people tried to make conversation with me, I’d run away,” Arevalo said.

Arevalo took English as a Second Language courses and finished his work toward a high school diploma after being released from jail in November.

After his arrest, Arevalo said, he spent seven months in jail, including five months in jail in Boston.

“The conditions (in Boston) were bad. People get sick and people die there,” he said.

He is still facing deportation, but his case is under appeal. In the meantime, he continues to advocate for congressional passage of the Dream Act, legislation that would allow immigrants who come to the United States at a young age to remain, provided they satisfy certain criteria.

If Arevalo wins his case, he would like to apply for college, where he plans to study computer science.

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

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