Semhar Gebrab sat at a small dining table covered in a white, printed tablecloth Thursday night surrounded by her husband, mother, stepfather and a close family friend. She wore a canary-yellow dress underneath an unzipped black graduation gown and a tired but happy look on her face. At the other side of the table, two balloons were tied with ribbon to the back of a chair. One read “Reach for the stars,” and the other said, “The tassel was worth the hassle.”

For seven years, Gebrab had been working toward her high school diploma at Portland Adult Education. On Thursday, the 29-year-old walked across Portland’s Merrill Auditorium stage and received her diploma.

She was one of 141 students who earned workforce certificates, high school diplomas or both.

Portland Adult Education, which is part of the city’s public school system, serves students who did not follow traditional educational paths. It provides English language classes, standard high school courses – including math, English, science and social studies – and workforce training. The school accepts students of all ages.

This year’s class includes native Mainers whose education was interrupted or for whom standard high school wasn’t a good fit, and newcomers who left their home countries due to political strife, social unrest and other safety concerns and are now seeking education to help their prospects in the United States. Some students made treacherous journeys to the U.S., walking thousands of miles across South and Central America, sometimes with children in tow, searching for a better life.

Loren Cassanguir hugs her mother, Macular Eduardo, as they take a photo together after Eduardo graduated from Portland Adult Education’s Workforce program Thursday at Merrill Auditorium. Eduardo has only been in Maine for six months and came to join her family in the U.S. from Angola after seven years of being apart from them. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Once in Maine, their lives did not always get easier. Some struggled with homelessness, living in churches, cars, shelters or couch-surfing at friends’ homes. Others worked two jobs and supported family members in the U.S. and their home countries. They did all this while taking classes at PAE.


“I got to just be in high school. I wasn’t managing a family, I wasn’t working multiple jobs,” PAE Academic Adviser Anja Hanson said in an interview prior to graduation.

“These students’ commitment to learning never fails to astonish me,” said Hanson, who has worked at PAE for over two decades. “Sometimes I don’t know how they do it.”

Gebrab was born in the Sudan and moved to Eritrea when she was 10, she said. When she was 14, her mother immigrated to the U.S. and at age 21, she followed.

Semhar Gebrab hugs her husband, Robal Kehsay, after her graduation ceremony Thursday at Merrill Auditorium. Gebrab had been working toward her diploma since arriving in the U.S. seven years ago. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Soon after she arrived, she started taking PAE classes. However, the process of learning English and earning a high school diploma was slow. She also worked long hours as an elder care specialist earning $14 an hour, she said, and tried to adjust to her new country while fighting to bring her husband here. Her daughter, age 12, is still waiting for a visa to come to Maine.

She only had time for a small course load. At times, she thought about giving up.

“I didn’t think it would be possible to finish high school,” she said.



At least 10 speakers stood in front of Merrill Auditorium’s podium during the two graduation ceremonies Thursday – one for workforce graduates and one for high school diploma earners.

All of them touched on the graduates’ determination and perseverance. They lauded students who came straight from working night shifts to school every morning ready to learn, who went to class, got their homework done and held jobs while single-handedly raising multiple children, who walked into school enthusiastic and ready to learn despite being homeless and facing countless other challenges.

PAE Executive Director Abbie Yamamoto referred to the students’ experiences as a “hardship and turmoil most people have only read about.”

Although some have never received a high school diploma, many have had significant education in their home countries, holding the equivalent of bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Esther Nneke, a student speaker from Nigeria who earned her high school diploma, urged her fellow graduates to use the moment as proof of their resilience and to continue to push boundaries and work to inspire others and support the community.


Clara Bongoma shared a Congolese proverb that she said translates to “never forget where you came from.” She encouraged her fellow graduates to be grateful for the opportunities available to them in the United States and Maine and to work to give back to the community.

“We have the freedom to be what we want in society,” she said.

Almost all of the graduates are employed and around 70% are going directly to college or back to PAE to continue their education.

Tainara Gouveia, 26, smiles as she walks off with her certificate at Portland Adult Education’s Workforce program graduation Thursday at Merrill Auditorium. Gouveia got her CNA license and hopes to get a master’s in public health. She was a physician in Angola and came to Maine in 2023. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Tainara Gouveia, 26, was a physician in Angola. She spent six years in school to become a general practitioner, she said. Now she is starting over in the American medical field.

On Thursday, she took home her certified nursing assistant certificate, a job that typically nets between $19 and $30 an hour in Maine, according to ZipRecruiter. She hopes to eventually get her master’s degree in public health.

Despite having to return to school, Gouveia said she doesn’t get discouraged.


“When you are looking for new opportunities, it’s not easy,” she said. “You just have to trust in the process.”

Cassidy Weymouth, 18, never liked school, she said. Then in seventh and eighth grade, her family moved around a lot, requiring her to switch schools multiple times midyear. Soon after, COVID hit, and she struggled to learn on the computer.

In her junior year, she left school and started working as a hostess. But as what would have been the end of her high school career neared, she decided to seek out a diploma after all.

Rather than returning to classrooms that never felt right, she took Maine’s high school equivalency exam. In March, a few months before she would have graduated with her class, she earned her high school diploma.

Weymouth plans to study hospitality at Southern Maine Community College starting this fall.

“I never thought I would go to college because I always knew I couldn’t afford it,” she said. “But with it being free it seems like a waste not to go.”



Gebrab hopes to one day become a nurse and has her sights set on Southern Maine Community College’s nursing program. But with a baby on the way, she plans to hold off a year and instead take classes in biology and English at PAE to better prepare herself for college-level work, she said.

Semhar Gebrab, back to camera, talks with her mother, Ahberet Bahta, left, her stepdad, Yemane Tsegai, and family friend Regat Mebrahtu at a celebration dinner after her graduation from Portland Adult Education on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

At her home in Portland after the ceremony Thursday night, her family enjoyed a dinner of traditional Eritrean food and chatted, switching between English and their native language, Tigrinya.

They talked about Gebrab’s nephew, shared videos of him and jokingly bickered about who the best babysitter was. They solemnly discussed their recent visit back home for her grandmother’s funeral.

Gebrab’s family members said they were immensely proud of her for finishing her diploma.

“It’s a lot of hard work to get this done,” said her stepfather, Yemane Tsegai. “Now onwards to the next step.”

When Tsegai first arrived in Maine 33 years ago, he enrolled in PAE, hoping to get his high school diploma. But life got in the way. He never finished.

Watching Gebrab earn her diploma, he said, made him think that one day he should return.

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