Mother and daughter, Cathy and Bronwyn Gray of Lewiston graduated together Saturday from the University of Southern Maine. Cathy Gray went back to school saying how else could she show her children the importance of college if she didn’t do it herself. Alan Bennett, University of Southern Maine

Happy mom, happy Mother’s Day! Cathy Gray, second from right, poses with her four children at her graduation from the University of Southern Maine.. Her children are Simeon, Maddie, Bronwyn (who also graduated Saturday from USM) and Ethan. Alan Bennett, University of Southern Maine

PORTLAND — Of the hundreds of graduates at Saturday’s University of Southern Maine commencement ceremony, two had a special bond.

Bronwyn Gray, 21, and her mother, Cathy Gray, 49, both of Lewiston, marched in caps and gowns and received their bachelor’s degrees.

Cathy said it was one of the best Mother’s Day gifts anyone could receive.

To graduate with her daughter “feels amazing,” Cathy said, adding that she went back to school years after high school to support her family and show her children college is important.

A single mother of four, Cathy works as a community education assistant at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Lisbon.

“I’ve opened up doors for myself,” she said. “Some careers you just have to have a degree. That’s the case at the Cooperative Extension,” she said. “I can’t be a 4-H professional without a degree. Now I do qualify for some of those jobs.”

In 1988 after graduating from a Florida high school, she married and became a homemaker. She had taken some college classes but stopped to allow her husband to focus on his career. The plan was he would be the bread-winner.

Twenty-five years later, she was divorced and regretting that she hadn’t gone to college.

“I realized I couldn’t live on what I could make with a high school diploma,” she said. And, she said, how could she show her children the importance of higher education if she didn’t do it herself?

To go to school, she applied for scholarships, sought all available help from state agencies and even help from her father at times. First she got an associate’s degree from Central Maine Community College, then transferred to USM for her four-year degree in leadership.

While a student, she worked part time, raised a family and home-schooled her children. She studied whenever she could: 5 a.m., midnight, mornings, afternoons.

She could not have done it, Cathy said, without help from her children, Simeon, Bronwyn, Ethan and Maddie who range in age from 15 to 24. “I am very proud of my kids.”

Watching her mother go to college while she went to college was inspiring, Bronwyn said.

“It’s not easy straight out of high school, not to mention having a long break (from being a student) as she did. I’m so proud of her and everything she’s done.”

When Bronwyn was in high school, “I never wanted to go to college,” she said. Her mother always encouraged her and her siblings to go while they were young, not to do what she did.

“She told us it isn’t a long period of time for a huge payoff later,” Bronwyn said. She agreed to go, but said she’d only go for a two-year degree, then she’d “move on” with her life. She enrolled in Southern Maine Community College in the culinary arts program.

Her mother kept talking.

“She kept saying, ‘You know, you can transfer to USM.'” Her mother didn’t nag but was a constant, encouraging voice. When Bronwyn was close to graduating from SMCC, she decided to keep going and enrolled at USM.

“And I found out all of my credits transferred so perfectly,” Bronwyn said. “Now I can’t believe I didn’t want to go. It has just flown by so quickly. I’m so happy I went.” And, she added, she has a degree “and I’m debt-free!”

She kept costs low by attending the community college first, then finishing at USM. She lived at home, not on campus. She got scholarships and worked all kinds of jobs.

Five years from now, Bronwyn said she hopes to have her own business catering to people who don’t have time to cook for themselves. “I could cook one meal or a week’s worth of meal prepping.”

Her mother hopes to have a better job at the Cooperative Extension.

For now, her education will continue. Cathy’s planning to get a master’s degree.

“I’ve already begun courses,” she said.

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