Student speaker Donald Cummings said he was inspired to change his life through a video game gamertag. He said, 'you can't give up until you actually try.'
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Earning a GED isn't a goal for most young children. But, life happens.
Life happened for 32 city adults who on Monday celebrated passing the high school equivalency test (HiSET) in the adult diploma program.
Those enrolled in the Pittsfield Adult Learning Center had all set their minds on second chances and earned a general educational development diploma to help themselves and their families.
"Obstacles don't have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don't turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it. This is exactly what you did. The wall didn't stop you," School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon said.
Roselie Honlah is the mother of five children, three of whom are currently attending Pittsfield Public Schools. She watched as one child moved onto college and then set her mind on getting back to school. She works full time, raising children, and still earned the GED. Honlah was honored with the Linda Hermanski Positive Mindset Award.
Grace Lanoue was homeschooled for years and was 16 when Lyme disease made her very sick. From then on, her focus was on being healthy and not learning. Last September, though, she enrolled at the Adult Learning Center knowing that she needs a GED before she can move onto college, and eventually become a librarian. She was awarded the William Stickney Scholarship to help her along the way.
And Donald Cummings had nearly given up hope. He was pulled from school as a child and he never had the confidence or family support to encourage him to get a GED.
"I always wanted to get my high school credentials but because of difficult circumstances of my childhood, I was unable to attend the traditional school setting. As time went on, I realized that one of the most important things a person can do is get a proper education. I would like to move onto college and the first step was receiving my HiSet," Cummings said.
"It was not an easy decision to return to school because I had many doubts about myself. I did not have the support in place to encourage me to take this step, so I put it off for far too long."
It was video games that inspired him. One day Cummings started to play a game when another player used the gamertag, "kill yourself."
"Having struggled with the question during my life, this name really had an impact on me." But, "shortly after, a player with the name 'change your life' came on the screen. Fortunately for me, the latter stood out to me and really spoke to me. You can't give up until you actually try," Cummings said.
Cummings made the decision to enroll and by earning his GED on Monday, he took control of his own life and didn't let the past determine his future. Superintendent Jason McCandless has been in schools in some capacity or another since he entered kindergarten in 1976. He's worked in classrooms since 1993. He knows schools don't work for everyone.
"I know some of us are lucky. School goes well, life goes well, and we finish before we know it and we are onto what's next. But I also know there are 1,000 things that can get in the way of that smooth 13 years between kindergarten and 12th grade - learning difficulties, life difficulties, unplanned pregnancies, a need to work, a lack of family support, deep deep tragedy can occur that makes school seem trivial or feel trite," McCandless said.
"For some school is just not working. It is not their thing and teachers are not their people," and later adding, "they are large institutions and were designed to work well for most people but sadly, not yet, we don't work well for everyone."
But for the 32 graduates, they didn't let that one decision or one situation change their lives forever, he said.
"The statement you are making is that you believe in the power of education to improve not only your life, but the life of your family, and the life of your community. You make a statement that we human beings are capable of growing and moving forward, always. And that our destiny is defined by us, not written in stone at birth or by the people that surround us nor is it sealed by a single decision that we make at some point along the way," McCandless said.
"You proved that you matter, that you believe in yourself and that no one should ever take an initial lack of success as a life sentence. We should take it is at the learning opportunity it is."
City Council President Peter Marchetti would have liked to tell the students that the struggles are over, but that wouldn't be the truth. There will always be challenges, he said, but the graduates showed that "you can succeed even if it takes multiple attempts."
Grace Lanoue was presented the William Stickney Scholarship.
Marchetti asked the students to take Monday evening and enjoy it, and soak it all in. Soon they will be back to the real world with a new set of challenges to overcome.
"Today we celebrate your moment, stop and enjoy it," he said.
As the students move forward with their lives, they're in a much better place for success than before. Nobody knows that more than Tricia Dobson, a 2001 graduate of the program and now this year's "distinguished alumna."
Dobson grew up in Dalton with two parents struggling with addiction. When she got into her teens, her father changed his life around and focused his efforts to raise her and her brother.
"Times were not easy. He was a young single father with two children. Money was tight and missing work was not an option for him. Due to responsibilities that I was required to take on, I missed school more than I should have," Dobson said.
She dropped out to work full time during her junior year, but then went back six months later. She caught up the classwork, but ultimately fell one class short of graduating from Wahconah Regional High School. In 2001, she called the Adult Learning Center. She got a job at an all-girls school, and then with the Brien Center to work with teens in crisis.
"I could not have obtained these jobs without my GED. And let me point out, never once did either of these places questions that I had a GED and not a diploma. They made the decision based on me and my work ethic," Dobson said.
She raised a son and when he turned 6, she enrolled for classes at Berkshire Community College and became the first from her family to earn a degree. Now, she will be heading back to school to become a registered nurse.
"I grew up assuming I would never go to college and neither of my parents would be capable of paying the tuition. And I was unable to show accomplishments throughout high school that may provide that possibility," Dobson said. "Let's face it. We didn't grow up saying 'my goal is to get my GED.' Something happened and our life paths changed. Thank God contacting the Adult Learning Center was an option for me."
Those stories are what stands out to Director Paul Gage. He said since the program began more than 8,000 people have graduated and so many had gone on to do great things.
"We make an impact on the lives of families who need it the most," Gage said.
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