WATERVILLE — Sheena Whitehurst scurried into Room 145 at Waterville Senior High School Tuesday night, donned her black cap and gown and stood nervously while teacher Karlene Additon-Strout pinned a corsage on her gown.
Whitehurst, 26, of Rome, was about to march with her classmates into Trask Auditorium to a cheering crowd of about 200 family members, friends and staff of Mid-Maine Regional Adult Community Education.
“I feel great,” Whitehurst said. “I feel glad that I’ve done this. This is a really big accomplishment for me.”
Whitehurst’s story is similar to that of many of her classmates who quit high school in their teens, started families and returned to school several years later.
Whitehurst for 10 years has worked at Bear Spring Camps in Rome, cleaning cabins. She had quit Messalonskee High School at 17 and at 18, had a baby girl. After seven years of taking adult education classes on and off, she completed her High School Equivalency Test Credentials, or HiSETs, which replaced the GEDs this year. She learned Tuesday that she had passed and would receive a diploma.
“It was hard to get back to school — to get a babysitter and get back and forth to school,” Whitehurst said. “It was tough, learning stuff all over again, but the teachers are so good. In the last six months, I pushed myself harder and studied and took my tests.”
On Tuesday, her daughter, Aleiah, 7, and husband, James Whitehurst II, were in the audience to watch her get her diploma. She said he hopes to get a job at a call center and perhaps go to college.
“I’d love some day to have a day care,” she said.
Tuesday’s audience, which included children and babies, was raucous, applauding loudly, yelling and squealing when the names of the graduates were read aloud.
Barbara Thornhill, 26, of Winslow, received her high school diploma Tuesday, also after seven years of taking adult education courses. A speaker at Tuesday’s ceremony, Thornhill said she went through the school of hard knocks, quitting high school, starting a family, getting an apartment and job and finally, learning the job was not paying enough.
“I learned that to be truly independent, I needed a good-paying job,” she said.
She knew she needed a high school diploma, she added. She enrolled in adult education, quit, enrolled the next semester, quit again and then did it all over again.
On Tuesday, she said she felt awesome that she had achieved her goal.
“Now, I can further my education and look forward to a good-paying job,” she said.
Fifty-seven students ages 17 to 49 received a high school diploma, HiSET or combination of the two, said Susan Tuthill, director of Mid-Maine Regional Adult Community Education, which includes Waterville, Oakland and Winslow schools and this school year, enrolled about 200 students.
Only about two dozen of the 57 chose to march in cap and gown Tuesday.
“We only have the bravest of the brave,” Tuthill said, referring to those who took part in Tuesday’s ceremonies. Her comment drew applause and shouts from the audience.
Former Waterville Adult Education student Summer Main spoke about earning her GED in 2003 and marching in the graduation ceremony in May, 2004. She recently was accepted into law school, she said.
Her teen years were tumultuous, she said. She got pregnant at 16 and dropped out of school. She started college in 2004 and worked every job imaginable — cook, cashier, customer service representative, receptionist, to name a few, she said.
It was not until she became a legal assistant that she found her passion. She received a bachelor of science in legal studies and got accepted to five of the six law schools to which she applied, she said.
“I’ve learned that with hard work, anything is possible,” she said.
She told the students Tuesday that when life throws an obstacle their way, they need to dust themselves off and keep moving forward.
“You deserve to work in a career that you love — not one that you tolerate,” she said.
Martha Herz, who graduated in the adult education class of 2011, said she dropped out of high school, having earned only five credits toward a diploma.
She signed up for adult education classes and completed 17 1/2 credits in 2 1/2 years, she said.
She then attended Kennebec Valley Community College and graduated last year with an associates degree in biological science. She is now enrolled at University of Maine at Farmington and plans to go to veterinary school after that.
“I am a high school dropout. I am the first person in my family to go to college and I’m dreaming really big,” she said. “I am going to be a doctor.”
Handing out diplomas Tuesday were Eric Haley, superintendent of Alternative Organizational Structure 92, which includes Waterville, Winslow and Vassalboro schools, and Gary Smith, superintendent of Regional School Unit 18, which includes Oakland, China, Belgrade, Rome and Sidney schools.
In the graduating class was Tony Bernard, 40, who quit high school 22 years ago, entered adult education eight months ago and never missed a day of classes. Bernard learned Tuesday that he landed a job with UPS — a job he had been hoping for.
“I’ve known Tony for six and a half years,” said his friend, Dan McNulty, who was in the audience Tuesday. “He has fought so hard for all of this. I’m so happy for him.”