The hardship, fear and grief of the past 15 months of the coronavirus pandemic are immeasurable. While holding that truth, we may still count the triumphs. This is particularly vital in education. From preschool through college, lost learning is real and severe, but adult education offers a way to shift our clock and perspective.

Kelly Flamenco-Quijano, right, and her daughter, Nicole, celebrate Kelly’s recent graduation magna cum laude from the University of Southern Maine, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting. Kelly, who came to the U.S. from El Salvador, earned a high school diploma from Portland Adult Education in 2017. Photo courtesy of Anja Hanson

At the peak of the pandemic, leaks from a feeding tube forced Kelly Flamenco-Quijano to change her daughter’s dressings and clothing 12 times per day. Because of pulmonary vein stenosis, her daughter Nicole had a bilateral lung transplant and open heart surgery as a toddler. Now 10 years old, she still copes with a vulnerable immune system and is legally blind. When they weren’t traveling to Boston for treatment, Kelly led all of Nicole’s schooling, including speech therapy, occupational and physical therapy sessions, at home by day. She attended college classes from 5:30 to 8 p.m. and studied until 3 a.m.

Kelly just graduated from the University of Southern Maine with a bachelor’s degree, receiving a certificate of excellence in finance. When she submitted her biography to the accounting and finance department for a commemorative website, she cautioned, “My submission will be longer than other students’ because my journey is longer. Please don’t cut it.”

Hardly any adult goes to school full time. The four-year plan of high school and college that structures and drives traditional students does not fit. Adults are working multiple jobs, raising families and caring for elders full time. They get sick, they give birth, family members die. They lose jobs and change shifts. Amid all of this, adults stop and start school; they find the pockets and corners of their lives that afford space to learn. They are not sophomores or juniors; they are taking one or two classes at a time to earn a high school credential or a post-secondary certificate or finish college. This is long-haul learning.

Thirty-three alumni of Portland Adult Education graduated from USM and Southern Maine Community College last month. One college graduate began studying English at PAE in 2009. Earning an associate degree in two years is the goal, but it took another student six years. He wasn’t eligible for most financial aid and had to seek scholarships and work full time to pay out of pocket for each electrical engineering class. 

In spite of COVID-19’s global mayhem, these 33 adults completed the degrees that mean they are likely to earn more, vote more and live longer. At PAE, more than 50 adults are on track to graduate by the end of June. Perhaps a slower pace is the right speed for challenging times. Perhaps these are the triumphs to honor, study and fund so that students who have slipped behind, according to a traditional clock, discover that they can seek extensions.

Starting in 2014, Kelly took 33 academic and workforce courses at Portland Adult Education, studies that culminated in a high school diploma in 2017. She already had a law degree from El Salvador, but she knew she had to start over to master English. Even though she entered USM with some credits and enrolled during the summer, she didn’t complete her degree until 2021. Her journey was longer.

Waiting for a bus at the mall, Kelly Zoomed with me from a laptop purchased with a scholarship. She told me that even the last days of completing college involved delays. Her daughter had gotten a virus that most other kids recover from in three days, but it left Nicole severely dehydrated and necessitated a trip to Boston during Kelly’s finals. She negotiated extensions of deadlines, and because she learned that she has to work hard from the first day of class in case of difficulties at the end of the term, she finished the charts, verified the font requirements and submitted her projects. In addition to earning a departmental award, Kelly graduated magna cum laude.

Now Kelly was celebrating having found a toy castle at the mall in time for Nicole’s birthday party. After the party, she planned to study to get her CPA. She planned to go slowly. Just another long haul.

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