"The possibility of returning to school existed, but I just wanted to make sure I was making enough of a living," Puga said. "I never entered into it thinking I would continue on to take college classes."
Puga, who's studying to become a paralegal, was just one of the students taking another step toward a college degree or better career this month when he received his diploma in Harper College's GED graduation ceremony. More than 75 students walked in the June 20 ceremony -- an increase of almost 50 percent over last year, when the college held its first formal GED graduation over two decades.
"It's a different type of ceremony, because the stories are so much more personal with the hurdles that our students have had to get across to achieve this huge milestone," said Maria Knuth, Associate Professor and co-chair of the Adult Educational Development program in the Academic Enrichment and Engagement division at Harper.
More than 65 percent of the graduates already have finished or are enrolled in a college-level class at Harper, Knuth said, because of the program's focus on helping them with the transition to higher education and career success.
"The GED Graduation is a true testimony to students' success in the Adult Educational Development Program, and we want to recognize the students' hard work and celebrate this accomplishment -- especially on this part of their educational journey," Knuth said. "Our hope is that it will not only inspire more people to go back to school, but also show them that obtaining a GED and a college education is within their reach."
Among the GED graduates continuing their studies at Harper are husband and wife David and Iris Rivera, a Hoffman Estates couple, who waited more than 30 years to finally don their long-awaited cap and gown at Harper College's GED graduation ceremony.
"I didn't want to leave this earth without getting my degree," David, 50, said. "We want to better our lives, and without a high school diploma, there's not a whole lot you can do."
David will work toward an electrical engineering certificate that will allow him to test for a promotion at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. Iris, 47, plans on earning her Certified Nursing Assistant credential and studying nursing.
"I hope others know they can do this, too," David said. "It's not easy with work and family, but it's worth it in the end."
Harper's GED curriculum includes a unique 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 or technical trades.
For the first time this year, 22 of the graduates were inducted into the National Adult Education Honor Society, for which students are nominated by faculty based on criteria such as work ethic and dependable attendance. Puga was one of two recipients of this year's GED Distinguished Scholar Award, given to students who score 3100 or higher on the GED test and complete an essay.
"Here at Harper, I feel like everything is geared toward helping you succeed," Puga said. "The only responsibility you have is to take advantage of that."
To learn more about the GED program, call the Harper College Adult Educational Development Office at (847) 925-6223 or visit harpercollege.edu.
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