PORTLAND – Thirty-three years after his graduation from the plumbing program at Southern Maine Vocational Institute in South Portland, Dana Tuttle watched his son receive a certificate in heavy equipment operations from the same school Sunday at the Cumberland County Civic Center.

The change in name to Southern Maine Community College isn’t the only difference from Tuttle’s time there. Since then, the school has exploded in size.

Wade Tuttle, who turned 19 on Sunday, was the youngest member of the school’s largest-ever graduating class of just over 1,000 students, about 450 of whom attended the ceremony Sunday.

Speakers, including administrators, a faculty member and a fellow graduate, told the class to dream big, to seize opportunities and to keep learning.

“You must not stop here,” said keynote speaker Chomba Kaluba, a Zambia native and SMCC alumnus.

After getting an associate’s degree in liberal studies, Kaluba went on to earn a bachelor’s in sociology from Bates College in Lewiston and is working toward a master’s degree in conflict transformation and sustainable development from the School for International Training Graduate Institute in Vermont.

Sunday’s graduates came to SMCC from eight countries, 11 states and all 16 of Maine’s counties. The oldest graduate was 67.

Last year’s class was about 200 students smaller, said Leslie Barteaux, a planning and research assistant for SMCC.

Enrollment in the Maine Community College System has increased by 83 percent since 2002. Its programs offering marketable job skills at a low cost have been attractive to both young people entering a gloomy job market and laid-off workers looking to start new careers.

Paula Dennis of Cape Elizabeth lost her sales job after working in the steel industry for 25 years. On Sunday, Dennis, 53, sat next to Kathryn Marnix, 25, her fellow graduate from the respiratory therapy program.

Before enrolling at SMCC, Marnix got an associate’s degree from the Heartwood College of Art in Kennebunk.

“I decided I wasn’t going to use it,” said Marnix, who lives in Biddeford and worked at a gas station in Scarborough while attending SMCC full time.

Both she and Dennis have sent out applications to several hospitals.

“We’re confident that we’ll get a job,” Marnix said. “By fall, we’ll find something.”

Graduate Patrick Miller starts Monday as a radiographer at Southern Maine Medical Center.

Miller, 25, has a business degree from Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. He said he also needs clinical skills to achieve his ultimate goal of becoming a hospital administrator.

“That’s what I’m accomplishing between my previous degree and this one,” he said.

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

[email protected]