My GED story

Photo by Tamir Kalifa

My formal education ended with a master’s degree from NYU, but it started by passing the GED.

Currently, 22 percent of all children in the United States live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. That is the equivalent of about $24,000 per year for a family of four. I was one of those children.

My mother waited tables and struggled to support five children. She was constantly preoccupied with paying the bills and making ends meet, so there was never an emphasis on education or encouragement to strive for college. No one in my family went to college; most failed to complete high school. My aspirations for higher education were met with snaps of, “No one else went to college; why do you think you’re so special?” Dreaming is not encouraged when survival is the focus.

I was surrounded by others just like me while growing up in low-income housing developments. No one was successful or middle class because as soon as your income increased you had to leave the neighborhood. I always knew college was the door to opportunity, yet I couldn’t see a clear path to get there. There were no role models. No one believed in me.

This changed when I met the woman who would eventually become my mother-in-law. She was a professor at the local university and the first person I had ever met with a college degree outside of my school teachers. Her Ph.D. was in anthropology. As a 14-year-old, I had never even heard that word before. Suddenly, my world became much larger.

She had high expectations for her son, and if I wanted to hang out with him, those expectations extended to me. Quickly, she became my mentor and a source of knowledge, guidance and support — the first adult to see I had potential beyond my circumstances.

Even with my mentor’s support, I was not on track to graduate high school. However, I was fortunate enough to live in areas with strong systems in place to move me through the educational pipeline. The GED prep program I enrolled in was offered at the community college, free of charge. Illinois, my home state, subsidizes GED testing, so I didn’t have to worry about how to pay for the test.

The Adult Education coordinators running the GED program helped me navigate the enrollment process so I could immediately begin taking courses at the community college as soon as I finished the GED.

I moved to Washington State with the goal of finishing my four-year degree. There, I was able to take a year off and work in order to qualify for in-state tuition, which kept college affordable. By completing my associate's degree at a community college, I was able to take advantage of the statewide transfer and articulation agreement in place that allowed all my credits to transfer when I was accepted to a state university.

Through it all, I had my mentor encouraging me every step of the way, editing and reviewing applications for schools, scholarships, jobs, and other opportunities.  

The greatest takeaway from my story is that I did not get here by myself. I had a mentor who believed in me and strong systems that created a pathway, even though I chose a non-traditional route. 

GED graduates here in Texas should be especially proud of themselves because this state lacks the strong educational pathways that I benefited from. Their struggles have been much greater: For example, Texas adults seeking to take the GED pay for each test in addition to administrative fees charged by the state and the testing center. And Texas college students often lose credits when they transfer from two-year to four-year universities, which increases both the cost and the time needed to complete a degree.

For Texas to remain a prosperous state, we must address the fact that we lead the nation when it comes to adults without a high school diploma or equivalency. The State Board of Education and the Legislature will be making important decisions in the coming year about the future of educational and career pathways in our state. This is an opportunity to share with state leaders the barriers to higher education we've seen in our communities and advocate for the systems and investments that will benefit us all. We all have a role in strengthening the education pipeline for those who come after us.

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities has been a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Chandra Kring Villanueva

Policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities