87 STLCC HiSET Grads Take the Next Step Toward a Better Future

By on August 14, 2019
STLCC HiSET program students celebrate their recent graduation

Willpower and perseverance enable the achievements of one of STLCC’s largest groups of HiSET program graduates.

St. Louis Community College HiSET® graduation ceremony guest speaker, Paul Banda, faced inconceivable obstacles more than 20 years ago as he went from orphan in Zambia, Africa to human trafficking victim in Texas. On June 6, Banda shared with 87 HiSET program graduates and a standing-room-only audience how he rose above the unbearable to achieve impressive new designations: dedicated student, anti-trafficking advocate, loving husband, aspiring artist, accomplished musician and respected professional.

After beginning a new life in St. Louis, Banda overcame formal education limitations and a language barrier to seize any promising opportunities that came his way. He took high school equivalency exam courses at STLCC-Forest Park and went on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Washington University in St. Louis.

“It wouldn’t have been possible without this program,” said Banda, who now serves as program manager for WashU’s Operations and Facilities Management Department (OFMD), a commendable advancement from the stock clerk and security guard roles he held years prior.

Banda’s inspirational story struck a deep chord with the graduating class, which included a St. Louis police cadet applicant, healthcare industry students, LaunchCode participants, community college students, a CDL operator, trade apprentices and more. Each student brings his or her own unique past to STLCC’s HiSET program with the shared goal of securing a better future. For some, their story contains unanticipated, path-altering obstacles. For others, regrets. But each of the 87 students left graduation that night with a significant achievement under their belts and a renewed sense of hope.

HiSET, which stands for High School Equivalency Test, replaced the General Education Development (GED) exam as the high school equivalency test in Missouri in January 2014. STLCC’s grant-funded HiSET program provides free, fast preparation for the exam with personalized instruction and career and college counseling. HiSET test scholarships are also available to those who qualify, and classes are conveniently held at multiple STLCC locations throughout the St. Louis region.

The acquisition of a high school diploma often leads to the pursuit of higher education or more desirable job opportunities. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2017 American Community Survey shows that individuals 25 years and older without a high school diploma typically earn $10,000 less each year compared to those who completed high school.

“This could be the beginning of more triumphs for you,” STLCC coordinator of adult education and literacy, Karl Steenberg, told the graduation crowd. “This piece of paper that you have in your hand is much more than that. It opens all kinds of doors to training and further education that you can avail yourself of.”

STLCC HiSET graduate Donnica Mays

STLCC HiSET program graduate Donnica Mays

After years raising her children and watching them get their college degrees, Donnica Mays entered STLCC’s HiSET program ready to focus on her own ambitions. Mays currently works as a medical assistant in a busy doctor’s office and plans to get a degree in organizational leadership and management and ultimately seek a human resources management or clinical director position.

“I needed this to get to the next level,” said Mays, who has already been accepted to a local university. “My degree is waiting for me.”

The relationships that Mays developed with her tutors boosted her morale and helped her accomplish her goals.

“The relationships I built were amazing. They became my friends,” said Mays. “This is not easy. When life is coming at you at the same time, and you’re trying to stay focused, they have your back. They were like, ‘You’ve got this.’”

STLCC HiSET graduate Elsy Castellanos

STLCC HiSET program graduate Elsy Castellanos

Program graduate and mother of two young children, Elsy Castellanos, started to take online HiSET classes a couple of years ago but repeatedly faced unforeseen circumstances that would force her to start all over again. She got on the waiting list for STLCC’s HiSET program and received the call that she had been accepted to the program right after she had given birth prematurely to her daughter. Determined to achieve her diploma, Castellanos relied on the support of the HiSET program staff to help her balance a challenging schedule of attending classes at STLCC’s Forest Park campus and spending time in the St. Louis Children’s Hospital newborn intensive care unit (NICU) with her preemie.

“They’re so understanding,” she said. “They know you’re going through things and they’re just there to support you.”

Castellanos came to the United States from Honduras and now works as a receptionist at Casa De Salud, a healthcare resource for the immigrant community of metropolitan St. Louis. This exposure to the healthcare field coupled with her experience in the NICU inspired her to get her diploma as a step toward a career in nursing or public health.

“I want to set a good example for my two kids that whatever you want to do, if you really want to do it, you can do it,” said Castellanos.

STLCC HiSET graduate William Davis

STLCC HiSET program graduate William Davis

Graduate William Davis spent years in and out of jail and came to the HiSET program ready to chart a new course and achieve the goals he had written down and mailed home to himself while he was incarcerated. He had tried to take the test previously but found that working with the STLCC HiSET program support staff and tutors was the missing piece to his success.

“I was nervous at first but once I got in, they made me feel right at home, like they knew me forever,” Davis said. “They made it so I was confident and they gave me the encouragement that I needed. The experience with the program was wonderful.”

Davis plans to attend trade school and he is currently exploring heating and cooling, plumbing or electrician programs. In the meantime, he is celebrating the fact that he has earned the diploma he has wanted for a long time and would advise anyone else looking for a fresh start to take the next step now.

“Write your goals down, check them off one at a time,” he said. “You’ve got one shot at living, and you have nothing to lose. So, why not?”

STLCC’s free HiSET program courses are held at various locations in the St. Louis area. Are you ready to take the next step? Visit stlcc.edu/hiset or call 315-514-5311 for more information about the St. Louis Community College HiSET program.

About Rebecca Rutherford

Rebecca Rutherford is Marketing Communications Coordinator of St. Louis Community College’s Workforce Solutions Group, which delivers non-credit continuing education opportunities, corporate training and community services to the St. Louis region.

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