BIDDEFORD, Maine — With a return to in-person graduation ceremonies, thousands of Maine college students are preparing to enter the workforce full time.
For the Class of 2022, that meant adapting to virtual and classroom learning and other challenges during the pandemic.
But for one University of New England senior, who already beat incredible odds to pursue a college degree, that dream almost didn't happen.
Kaylee Blake was born with cerebral palsy, which left her unable to walk. She also has limited use of the right side of her body, but she always tries to look on the bright side.
"I have all my left side," she said. "I can feed myself, so I have a lot of mobility options."
Since she was a little girl, she dreamed of becoming an elementary school teacher.
"I can offer children a different perspective that they can do anything despite challenges they may have to overcome to do so," Blake said.
Thanks to the support from her family and college professors, Blake was on the path to making that lifelong dream come true. In February 2020, she was in her final semester as a senior at the University of New England. But then weakness began in her arms and legs. It spread to the upper body, leaving her paralyzed from the neck down.
"It got to the point where she couldn't even swallow, and then emergency intubation, which is quite scary," Kimberly Roux Blake, Kaylee's mother, said.
After being flown by helicopter to the hospital, Kaylee spent two weeks on a respirator in the intensive care unit. She was diagnosed with Guillen-Barre Syndrome, a condition in which the immune system attacks the nerves, possibly triggered by a bacterial or viral infection.
Kaylee Blake began to improve and had just started physical and occupational therapy at a rehab clinic when the pandemic hit. She began working with therapists at home as everything went into lockdown.
"The therapists came to my home twice a week for a year and a half," Kaylee Blake added.
She put school on hold and battled back, regaining her strength and skills.
Nearly two years later, Kaylee made it back into the classroom in January, focusing on the final 12 credits to complete her elementary education degree.
Kaylee still needed to complete an internship, but hands-on training in a public classroom wasn't an option with her weakened immune system.
Carol Marcotte, Kaylee Blake's faculty supervisor, helped her secure an online internship with the Maine Department of Education. She helps vet social, emotional learning modules for teachers to be used in K-12 classes.
"She came up with even better ideas. She is inspirational, and she is going for it," Marcotte, a teaching professor at UNE's education department, explained.
"It's just amazing how far she's come and how much work she has put into it. Graduation is a big deal to us," Kimberly Roux Blake said.
As an inspiration to people of all abilities, Kaylee Blake hopes her passion and drive to succeed as an educator will have a positive impact on students in the classroom one day, helping them realize their dreams, no matter the odds.
The University of New England will hold its commencement ceremonies at 10 a.m. Saturday at Cross Insurance Arena in Portland.