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Non-Traditional Students Gain a Traditional Diploma

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They come for different reasons. Their job requires it. High school wasn’t a good fit.  Life got in the way. But they leave with the same thing: a high school diploma.

In October the most recent crop of AACC’s School of Continuing Education and Workforce Development students celebrated its 20th Maryland High School Diploma Student Recognition Ceremony. That night 49 people walked on to a stage and off toward a brighter future with a diploma in hand.

“It is so impactful,” said Rena Burkowsky, program manager. “You have someone who is 30, 40 or 50 who thought they would never graduate. There’s so much energy in the audience. It’s important to the graduates and their families. For some, they’re showing their kids they can do it.”

Since 1998, almost 3,000 students have passed the GED® test, earning their high school diploma through AACC’s Basic Skills and GED® Program. The free program includes a practice test and classes. The nationally recognized, four-part test costs $45 and is administered at certified testing centers throughout the state.

Jasmine Berrios, a recent graduate, was one of four who shared the story of her journey to a diploma during the 2017 ceremony. She worked in retail and makeup artistry, but plans to enroll in courses at AACC in health care and business management. Berrios said previous managers would encourage her to pursue management, but the lack of a degree held her back. The 31-year-old had been taking honors classes when she dropped out of high school to become a mother. A move to Maryland with her husband, three kids and her son’s childhood cancer diagnosis later, Berrios recalled some nights studying with a book in one hand, and suctioning her son’s tracheotomy tube with the other.

“The dedication you see with some of our students is unreal,” Burkowsky said. “We’re just a part of helping people be more successful with what they’re already doing.” She said one current student is particularly driven, but lacks family support, not an uncommon issue in the GED® student population. “The staff here has become his support system,” she said. “Sometimes we become that safety net, that cheerleader.”

Besides seeing students graduate, there are other unexpected moments of reward. Recently a staff member was visiting a family member in the hospital, and was surprised to run into an old student who today is a registered nurse. Many graduates make the choice to continue with their education, whether elsewhere or at AACC. “Our students can transition to the college,” Burkowsky said. “We have a transition coordinator specifically to work with them.”

Dr. Dawn Lindsay, AACC president, said the graduates are ideal college students who already have demonstrated they understand the importance of learning and are motivated. "Knowledge is probably the most important commodity in the world today," she said at the graduation. “As you continue to redefine yourself, know that AACC will always be a resource for you.”

Students who don’t use the degree to move on to higher education still might need it for the job they have, a job they’re applying to or promotions. Debbie Buttermore-Gonzalez, the Adult Basic Skills program assistant, said the program serves many laid-off warehouse workers who realize the value of a diploma in the market. Buttermore-Gonzalez's own niece came through the program, graduating when she would have if she had stayed in her regular school.

The program is funded through the U.S. Department of Education; the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation; and AACC. For information on the program, search for “Adult Basic Skills & GED® Test Preparation” at



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