Adult learners proud of high school diplomas

·4 min read

Alfredo Sarabia and Mary Berg both know the true meaning of stick-to-it-tiveness.

The two recently walked across the stage at the John N. Given Learning Centre to receive their Ontario Secondary School Diplomas.

They're part of the first group to do so since the onset of the pandemic.

The two adults, who hail from different walks of life, shared the vision of getting their high school diplomas.

For valedictorian Sarabia, it was a dream come true.

"It was something I really wanted to do," he said, adding he had completed Grade 11 in Bucaramanga, Columbia – as far as regular high school goes in that country.

But in addition to personal accomplishment, the Grade 12 diploma held special significance for him as it meant he would be hired as a custodian by the Lambton Kent District School Board.

When Salabia came to Canada at age 25, with the help of an aunt, he started working as a cleaner in Calgary.

It was there in Western Canada, he met his partner Jeff Goldhawk, a former resident of Chatham. The two came back to Ontario and bought a house in Cambridge where they planned to stay.

But then Goldhawk's mother told the pair about the "cute new homes" being built in Chatham by Maple City Homes.

They decided to take a look, and the rest is history, as they bought one of the houses.

Goldhawk, a teacher, got a job, and then it was Salabia's turn. He applied to the LKDSB and was hired as a custodian with officials agreeing to hold the job for him until he finished his diploma.

But the next part wasn't easy.

The Spanish-speaking Colombian immigrant discovered that returning to school and doing it online was challenging.

The 41-year-old completed four Grade 12 credits, noting math was much easier to comprehend than the intricacies of English literacy.

"Numbers have the same meaning in Spanish and English," Sarabia said, "but English – that is a different story. English is a difficult language."

Sarabia said he felt like giving up many times, but encouragement from teachers, his partner and the promise of a job helped him keep going.

"It was difficult and it was hard but I am so glad and proud I did it," he explained.

His advice to everyone thinking about their Grade 12 diploma?

"Just do it," Salabia stressed. "Go and get your high school.

"I am so glad to have this opportunity," Salabia said, adding Canada has given him options that never would have arisen had he stayed in Columbia.

"I love this country," Salabia said. "This is a wonderful place and I'm so proud to be a Canadian."

Chatham-Kent resident Mary Berg is another adult who returned to school through the John N. Given Learning Centre.

The 39-year-old Tilbury resident quit school in Dresden at age 17 after finishing Grade 10.

Berg said she always felt bad about the decision.

"I totally regret quitting high school and I wish I would have finished," Berg said, adding her new diploma has made her feel "accomplished and proud."

The mother of three, who now works as an administrative assistant in Leamington and operates her own photography business, said the hardest part of getting her diploma was finding time to do the work.

Berg, who won the Principal's Award, noted that "life gets busy. I'd have to make myself set aside time to work on my classes."

According to Lori Sheppard, literacy team lead at the centre, students achieved their diplomas through a combination of online work and in-person visits – all while navigating COVID-19 protocols.

Sheppard said COVID-19 brought on the "total interruption of our education service.

"Adult students had to share the Internet and technology with their families," she said. "Most adults prioritized their children's education over their own."

Sheppard said it was encouraging to watch the adult learners forge ahead.

"This work is really a gift," she said, adding it's gratifying to be able to help people advance in their goals.

Adult learning plays an important role in Chatham-Kent as local education attainment is lower than the provincial average.

Current statistics show 76 per cent of residents aged 25 to 64 have a high school diploma compared to 82 per cent of Ontario as a whole.

The population without a certificate, degree or diploma is six-per-cent higher than the Ontario average of 18 per cent.

The percentage with college education is higher in Chatham-Kent (26 per cent versus 21 per cent); while the percentage with a university degree is lower at 11 per cent locally versus 26 per in Ontario at large.

A total of 199 adults have graduated with their high school diploma in the past three years. There were 85 in the 2019-2020 school year; 66 in 2020-2021 and 48 in 2021-2022.

Pam Wright, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chatham Voice

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