Natali Villezcas-Aguirre will cut short a mission trip she is on and travel 1,500 miles from El Paso, Texas, to Palatine this week to celebrate the opportunity to don a cap and gown for the first time.
She'll join 50 other graduates -- ranging in age from 18 to their mid-50s -- at Harper College's first formal GED graduation ceremony in more than two decades.
The event, at 7 p.m. Friday, June 21, will mark the students' success in the program, which often serves as a first step toward a college degree or a better career. Passing the GED, or General Educational Development, tests of competence in five subject areas is the equivalent of a high school diploma for those who have not completed high school.
"We thought it was important to stop and help students celebrate their accomplishments in this leg of their educational journey," said Darice Trout, director of adult education. "We hope it will inspire more people to go back to school and show them that it is possible to obtain a GED and a college education. It is within their reach."
The graduation ceremony will be held in the Performing Arts Center on Harper's main campus, 1200 W. Algonquin Road, in Palatine. About 250 family members and friends are expected to attend, and at least two of those families will see multiple family members walk across the stage.
"We are so excited to bring back this tradition," Trout said. "By helping those in our community succeed in education, we are helping build their futures and, collectively, the future of our community."
Harper's GED curriculum includes a bridge program that provides a smooth transition from GED coursework to college-level classes with a goal of preparing the students for higher education or specific careers in health care or jobs in technical trades.
Nearly 80 percent of the graduates already have finished or are enrolled in a college-level class at Harper because of the program's focus on helping them with the transition to higher education.