Before graduation season comes to a close, there is a group of local grads that deserves recognition. Clad in maroon caps and gowns, and big smiles, all 33 members of Westbay Community Action’s 2013 Adult Education Academy’s Graduation Class earned GED certificates during a ceremony held in Council Chambers at City Hall on Tuesday through the Adult Education Academy.
The graduates (plus five pending grads) started their GED studies with unique educational backgrounds and individual goals, and ages. While some of them are still in their teens, others are in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. Still, they worked at their own pace, as the free program is designed for eligible non-traditional students.
Many of the graduates said Westbay provided them with a welcoming place to tackle subjects that hindered them in the past. They praised dedicated instructors Deborah DeSousa and Rick Blanco, who helped them overcome obstacles and insecurities that have kept them from completing their academic ambitions.
Others also thanked their families for encouraging them to pursue their educational dreams.
Robert Campbell, 56, spoke at the event and told an assembly of more than 125 that his wife and two daughters have been his inspiration to earn a GED. After quitting high school when he was 16, he entered the job force, making a steady income through the years.
But when he was laid off in September of last year, he immediately signed up for the program. It only took him five months to complete.
“When I told my family about it, they were very supportive,” Campbell said. “They wished me luck.”
Now, he feels more “complete” and is looking to pursue higher education in the health care field. Giving his family an even better life, he said, is his goal.
Another GED recipient, Sophia Sheehan, 25, a mother of two, feels the same. She also addressed the assembly and thanked everyone who led her in the right direction, starting off with “the man above,” as well as her family, including her mother, sisters, and two daughters.
“Without you girls, I wouldn’t be here today,” Sheehan said.
She began the program in October, wrapping up her studies in December. Like other students, Sheehan praised instructors.
“Not only are they supportive, they are just super at everything they do,” she said.
Kathleen Souza, 18, spoke at the ceremony, as well. She completed her courses quickly, starting in October and wrapping up in November, and recently began taking courses at the Community College of Rhode Island. She is interested in entering the human resources field.
Taking the first steps are the hardest, she said, but they are worth it.
“I was a little nervous at first, but I am very happy that I took this path,” Souza said.
Souza, along with five other grads, have started or completed college courses. More have found jobs.
Melanie LaMountain, director of the Westbay Community Action Adult Education Academy, who spoke on behalf of Westbay CEO Jeanne Gattegno, said it certainly was a night to rejoice. At the same time, she already misses the graduates.
“It’s bittersweet for different reasons,” she said. “It’s tough to see you guys move on, but I’m happy to see you accomplishing things.”
Ward 2 Councilman Tom Chadronet agreed. As the oldest of six siblings, he explained to the assembly that it was expected of him to get a job when he was 16 to help support his family. Soon after, he joined the U.S. Army. Later on in life, he went on to earn his GED and then studied business at Johnson & Wales. In addition to being a councilman, he is now a successful property manager and bookkeeper.
“It wasn’t easy, but I will say this: going forward, if someone puts a hurdle in your way, jump over it,” Chadronet said.
Dr. Phillip Less of the Rhode Island Department of Education addressed the assembly, as well. He illustrated his point to graduates by sharing the story of Dr. Emma Rhodes of Arkansas, who grew up in a family of 14 children.
Rhodes dropped out of school and had a baby when she was 16, going on to have six more children through the years. In time, she knew she wanted to go back to school and earn her diploma.
“She went back to school and earned her GED,” Less said. “She went to her mother and said, ‘Mama, I got my GED!’ Her mother said, ‘That’s great. What’s next?’ And Emma said, ‘Well, maybe college.’ Her mother said, ‘Go do it.’”
The story goes on with Rhodes earning degree after degree, as her mother keeps asking, “What’s next?” Eventually, Rhodes earned her doctorate and became the state director of adult education in Arkansas.
“So I ask you,” Less said to graduates, “What’s next?”
The Adult Education Academy at Westbay Community Action is funded through grants, as well as donations made by the Rhode Island Department of Education, the Rhode Island Department of Human Services, including the Community Action Fund and the Community Service Block Grant, and the Rhode Island State Legislature. Learn more at Westbaycap.org.
**Completed or currently attending Post-Secondary Training
**Kathi Piccirilli, who graduated with honors
Paige Olivia Parenteau