PORTLAND — Nick Leong disliked school so much he approached his guidance counselor about dropping out his sophomore year.
Before she would sign off on the paperwork, however, she told him to first check out the various programs offered by the Portland Arts and Technology High School to see if he could find his niche.
He did and now three years later, Leong is set to graduate and attend Maine Maritime Academy in Castine this fall. He’ll also spend the summer working on outboard engines and assisting the technicians at Portland Yacht Services.
Leong, the youngest of six siblings, lives on Peaks Island with his parents. His father, Peter Leong, is a doctor, and his mother, Chris Cassidy, is a photographer.
Leong hopes to become a marine engineer, overseeing the engine room of a cargo or cruise ship. His love of the ocean comes naturally. He’s been lobstering since the age of 14 and owns his own boat, the Elizabeth Ruth, which he named after his sister.
He enrolled in the marine systems program at PATHS, where he learned the basics of marine electrical systems, engine repair and composites. What Leong most enjoyed about his time at PATHS was the hands-on learning.
“I don’t like sitting in a classroom for six hours a day, learning stuff I don’t need to know, like Shakespeare,” he said. “At PATHS I’ve learned stuff I’m actually going to use.”
Leong takes his academic courses at Portland High School and was able to turn his grades around because he had to maintain a certain grade point average in order to continue attending PATHS.
PATHS is set to hold its senior celebration at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 31, at Merrill Auditorium in downtown. Leong is not sure if he’ll attend that ceremony, but he does plan on attending Portland High’s graduation ceremony on June 6 to collect his hard-won diploma.
Leong said he gravitated toward the marine systems program at PATHS because “I could relate, being a lobsterman outside of school, and I also really like working on the waterfront.”
“I also figured that since I have my own boat, I should learn how it works.” By the time he enrolled at PATHS, Leong said “my parents were pretty much open to anything” that would keep him in school.
He said there are about 24 students in the marine systems program, but he’s the only graduate headed to Maine Maritime Academy.
Leong said he “definitely has two friend groups,” one from PATHS and one from the island. With his friends from PATHS, Leong likes going fishing and working on boats; with his friends from the island, Leong builds bonfires on the beach or tools around Casco Bay in his boat.
“I don’t think I’ll miss Portland High, but I will definitely miss PATHS,” he said. “I will really miss my teacher and the shop and working on big projects with a bunch of other people.”
Leong said one of the things he’s most enjoyed about PATHS is “the sense of purpose and accomplishment and that (everything) is a team effort. There’s still a stigma about attending a technical school, but in the long run I’ll be well ahead of my other more (mainstream) classmates.”
Leong credits marine technology instructor Michael Del Smith with “inspiring me and really helping me to stay on track and keep my nose to the grindstone. Coming (to PATHS) made me capable and it was a good choice for me.”
He would encourage other students to check out PATHS, even if they’re not struggling with their academics like he was.
“I would say, find a program that you can relate to and that you’re interested in and just try it,” Leong said. “There are so many programs here and so many different avenues, from cooking to music. PATHS really opens up opportunities and I’m definitely really glad (I came).”
Nick Leong went from wanting to drop out of school to finding his niche in the marine systems program at Portland Arts and Technology High School. This fall he will attend Maine Maritime Academy.
Nick Leong has been lobstering since the age of 14 and owns this boat, the Elizabeth Ruth, which he named after his sister.