05/17/09 — WCC graduates receive diplomas Saturday morning

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WCC graduates receive diplomas Saturday morning

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on May 17, 2009 2:00 AM

Most high school students earn their diploma in four years, not eight, and they do it by age 18, not age 32.

But most high school students aren't single parents of two daughters. They don't work a nine-hour shift at Butterball, then attend classes for an additional seven to eight hours.

Most high school students aren't Emily Torres.

Ms. Torres graduated Saturday from the adult high school program at Wayne Community College, along with 89 other adult high school certificate and degree candidates. But it was a long walk from her teenage years to the podium, where the Bronx, N.Y., native gave the graduation address.

"When I first started attending school, I never told anyone my age. I was embarrassed and ashamed," she said. "A 32-year-old woman going to school for her high school diploma? Wow!"

Ms. Torres dropped out of school at the age of 17, when her oldest daughter was 3 years old and her youngest, only 6 months.

"I had my own place, and I was on welfare. I was relaxing. I kept saying, 'I'll go back to school soon,'" she said. "But everything on the outside looked fun and so I kept putting it off."

She attempted to return to school, but her father's death two months later disheartened her, and she dropped out again. It wasn't until 2001 when she married and moved to North Carolina that she began pursuing her high school degree from Wayne Community College.

But her struggles weren't over yet.

"A year after we were married, my husband began to drink and started abusing me. I didn't leave him at first, because I thought, 'Well, how will I live? Where will I go?'" Ms. Torres said. "I had no money, no education. Nothing."

It wasn't until she thought of her own mother's experience, of going back to school as an adult to earn a GED and get a job, that she made the decision to pursue her own degree no matter the sacrifices she would have to make. Her children were also a big reason she felt she needed to get her life together.

"How could I tell my girls to stay in school and better themselves when I didn't finish school myself? So one day, I said, 'Enough is enough,'" Ms. Torres said.

It took eight grueling years of working long shifts at her job, going to classes and returning home to look after her daughters, but there was no doubt in her mind that she had made the right decision.

"I was barely sleeping, but I promise you, standing here on this stage today, it was so worth it!" she said.

Ms. Torres became the first recipient of the Penny Nelson Memorial Scholarship, a fund established at the college in memory of Mrs. Nelson, an adult high school teacher and former WCC curriculum instructor who passed away earlier this year after a long battle with cancer. Faculty and staff at the college donated to the fund, and Mrs. Nelson's husband was in the audience for the presentation of the memorial scholarship, as were many of her students.

The scholarship will help Ms. Torres continue her education and pursue a career as an emergency medical technician.

"There will be many obstacles in your way. Do not let them stop you from achieving your goals. Don't stop moving forward," she told her fellow graduates. "Live life for yourself and be the very best that you can be. You have come this far, why stop now?"

Letitia Loften received the Kitty Sauls Scholarship, and Erlith Brigitte Cantillo Vasquez received the Brian Scholarship.

Wayne Community College president Dr. Kay Albertson thanked the graduates and their families for all of their hard work.

"A huge thank you to those in the bleachers who supported these graduates. You helped make their journey much more satisfying," she said. "And thank you, graduates, for finishing this momentous accomplishment, for making yourselves a better person and for what you will do with your knowledge and skills to make the world a better place in which to live."

Dr. Albertson challenged the new graduates to continue to strive to achieve their aspirations.

"I know this seems like a harsh time to be sending you out into the world. The economy is dealing many tough blows," she said. "But you have earned for yourselves something that cannot be taken away from you -- an education."

This year's class of adult high school and GED students is part of the largest in the college's history.