Overcoming challenges, Adult Learning Center's graduates receive diplomas

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Photo Gallery | 40th annual Pittsfield Adult Learning Center Graduation & Awards

PITTSFIELD — Forty. It was the appropriate number of graduates for the 40th annual graduation and awards ceremony for the Pittsfield Adult Learning Center.

On Wednesday evening at Crosby Elementary School, the men and women among the center's Class of 2016 were able to walk across the auditorium stage with a story of how they kept striving toward that life-changing high school equivalency credential they've gotten second, third, fourth, and in some cases even more chances to obtain. But they did it, however long it took them.

In addition to handing out awards and diplomas, Adult Learning Center staff shared stories of how much harder than their typical peers these students have had to work to earn what they now held in their hands.

"All of our graduates need to be commended for making the full commitment to change the courses of their lives," said center Director Paul Gage. "It doesn't matter where you get your diploma. In the end it matters what you do with it."

Four students, Samuel Acquah, Lorraine Akor, Don R. Ross and Gabriel J. Schultheis were named recipients of the William Stickney Scholarship, which honors the center's late longtime director.

Acquah is steadily taking the steps he needs to become a nurse. While taking care of his own family, he enrolled in online courses and advanced four grade levels over the past summer, becoming the center's first distance learning student to pass the HiSET exams. He'll go on to attend the post-secondary nursing program at McCann Technical School.

Akor came to Pittsfield from Ghana at age 18 — too old to attend high school. She spent the past six years struggling to pass the math portion of the HiSET tests, but finally succeeded in January.

Ross, took his second chance to become organized and studious, completing his program in only eight weeks. He's now planning his pathway to become a computer hardware engineer.

As for Schultheis, at age 16, center college and career counselor Mia Albano said he came in with a "mature understanding" of life, and added to his studies volunteering with Goodwill Industries of the Berkshires, which changed his perspective on people and on the need to be more accepting.

Staff member Pam MacDonald talked about her English as a second language student, Carlos Barillas, who could not attend Wednesday's ceremony because he works some 80 hours a week. "He came from a country that is not safe," she said.

She noted how, in a 10-day span, Barillas learned that his mother was diagnosed with cancer, his daughter was hospitalized with the Zika virus and his uncle was killed.

"I thought, that's it, I'm never going to see him again," said MacDonald. "But he came back to class and never gave up."

Joan Evans, who was honored for working at the center since it opened, has likely seen and heard thousands of stories like this over the past four decades. Both she and administrative assistant, Bridget Manarchik, who has been with the center for 20 years and was also honored Wednesday, said it's those stories, and the level of compassion and commitment of the staff, that keeps them with it.

Various city dignitaries were on hand to support the students, including City Councilor Peter White and School Committee members Cynthia Taylor and Daniel Elias.

Council President Peter Marchetti spoke on behalf of Mayor Linda M. Tyer; School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon passed out diplomas, and Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless characterized the ceremony as the city's "last and most special" graduation of the season.

As a Distinguished Alumna award recipient, Tina M. Schettini, who earned her GED in 1987, told students she's living proof of the success an alternative education opportunity can provide. She's worked for the past 15 years as the senior special program coordinator for Berkshire Community College.

"We are going to go great places because of who we are individually," she said.

To get to that point, however, many Adult Learning Center students have had to overcome deep fears, be it of math or learning English; of failing and of rejection, or, as Gage, noted, of succeeding and then having a "fear of greater expectations."

Which is why the center, located in a storefront at 141 North St., is a hub, a sanctuary and for many students, a second home. It accepts people who come as they are — men and women of varying ages and backgrounds, who have dropped out of school or did not have a chance to attend high school. The center offers them free day and evening opportunities, support services and other tools to help them make up the work and test for their high school equivalency credential, through passing the HiSET (formerly GED) exams, or completing the Adult Diploma program offered through the Pittsfield school district.

"Everything starts with an idea," said student speaker Ritza Y. Fernandez, who spent 12 years raising her children before going back to school last year to work toward her high school credential. "Today, remember this moment started with an idea to continue our education. Remind yourself that we are responsible for our happiness ... Today, I can stand here and say, I am in control."

Jenn Smith can be reached at 413-496-6239.


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