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Hope, perseverance, and success: Stories of adult education

Cindy Unwin (left) shared her graduation with her granddaughter. Ee Ahn Kang photo.

Cindy Unwin: I feel like I really accomplished something

Graduating high school is something I’ve always wanted to do. It wasn’t an easy decision to leave school when I was 14 years old and just starting Grade 10. My mom and I had several conversations and ultimately concluded it would be best for me to leave school so I could work and help at home. As one of seven siblings in a family raised by a single mom, helping out was part of our lifestyle.

I thought about going back to school many times, but eventually I moved out of my mom’s home and had children of my own. At that stage of my life, I didn’t have the time or resources to go back.

The idea of graduating from high school stayed in my mind, but for a long time, I never knew I could go back to school.

I’m 65 now, and for the last 10–15 years I started seriously thinking about my options to graduate from high school. I tried a few different options for completing courses needed to graduate, but none of them worked well for me. Then I met the teachers at SJ Burnside Education Centre.

SJ Burnside was completely different to any school experience I’d ever had. They didn’t care who you were or what level you were at. Every student was welcomed and supported. It was okay to do things that were a little outside of the box. The teachers worked with me.

At first, nobody thought I was actually going to finish school because I tried to do it a few times before but was never able to. When I eventually did it, I was so proud of myself. My children, grandchildren, and my siblings were all so happy for me.

I had no intention of going to the graduation ceremony, but my teachers convinced me to and I’m so glad I did. When I walked across that stage, everybody stood up and clapped for me. It was a feeling I’d never had before. Everybody was happy and celebrating because of something I did.

I feel like I really accomplished some-thing. I’ve been struggling with this all my life, and I finally did it. It’s hard to find words to explain what this means to me. The teachers, Susan Salvati in particular, made this possible for me.

I got to graduate alongside my granddaughter, and now I get to figure out what’s next for me. Even though I’m as old as I am, I want to find something that feels like me for my next chapter.

Eri Nakabayashi. Photo provided by author.

Eri Nakabayashi: It really is never too late

I decided to go to the education centre as an adult because instead of attending high school in Grade 12, I went to Vancouver Community College to pursue pastry arts. I aspired to be a pastry chef since I was a child; however, after working as one for five years and meeting others who have been pastry chefs for much longer, I realized this wasn’t what I wanted to do long term.

The only other subject I’m passionate about, other than pastry arts, is marine conservation and restoration, so I decided to upgrade my schooling to change careers and follow my passion. In order to pursue post-secondary education, I needed credits for two high school courses that I didn’t complete when I was in school.

I felt like I was behind compared to my friends and peers, but I believed it was worth trying to go back to school. It really is never too late.

Charlotte Horspool. Photo provided by author.

Charlotte Horspool: The first step is always the hardest

The decision to go back to school as a mother with two young children was not an easy one. It took me years to finally build up enough courage to go back to school. Working within the school district already as a custodian, I knew that I wanted to further my career within the school system as an education assistant.

When I finally took the leap, I was introduced to Louise Dominick who runs Ahms Tah Ow School in Tla’amin. Louise was extremely helpful in getting me s

et up and started with my English 12 upgrading course, as I had taken Communications 12 in high school.

I received endless amounts of support and encouragement from my teacher, James Hanson. He helped build my confidence and was always there to help in any way I needed. Upon completion of my English 12 course, I had the confidence and tools I needed to jump right into my university level English course through Vancouver Island University, which I completed in April with an A grade. I cannot thank Louise and James enough for the continued support and encouragement as I take the next steps in continuing my education.

The first step is always the hardest.

Channi Gonzales. Photo provided by author.

Channi Gonzales: Adult education changed the direction of my life forever, and that of my kids

I came back to school after 23 years of being out of school. It was an intimidating process, but one I’m so glad I followed through with because it changed my life.

My decision to leave school was made from necessity. I spent most of my childhood in and out of foster care because my parents struggled with addiction. I was legally emancipated from my parents when I was 14 years old.

For youth who end up completely on their own like me, there is some support from the government where we receive a subsidy to help with rent. However, the subsidy is not enough to cover all our expenses, so I found myself working three jobs just to make ends meet when I was 14 years old. That didn’t leave much time for school. Teachers and the school principal at my high school tried to find ways to keep me in school, including finding paid internship programs for me. But ultimately, it wasn’t enough money and I ended up leaving school in Grade 9.

Life wasn’t easy after that, and I found myself incarcerated at age 20 for cashing stolen cheques to feed myself.

Fast forward a few more years and I was a single mom with two kids and abysmal job opportunities. Not many employers are willing to hire someone who has been incarcerated, and it’s even more challenging when you need to balance a job with taking care of two kids by yourself.

When my oldest son was in Grade 9, he started to have problems at school. He was the same age I was when I left school, and I could see he was starting to give up on himself the way I did. I didn’t want him to leave school. I wanted him to be able to access the opportunities that come with having completed high school. So, I struck a deal with him: we agreed that if I enrolled in school again and give it 100% effort, he would do the same.

I took my end of the deal seriously. I searched online for adult education programs and found out there was a publicly funded option available to me.

It was scary going back to school after 23 years of being away from it, but the people were amazing. My English teacher, Kim Henneberry Glover, was a counsellor and mentor to me throughout my time in adult education. I almost gave up multiple times because of the things happening in my personal life. I faced homelessness at one point, and my dad died of an overdose at another point.

It’s not easy to focus on school when all these things are happening in your personal life. But Kim didn’t let me quit. She pushed me and guided me. I’ve never had people in my life push me like this. I don’t think I could have achieved what I did without the mentorship and friendship I found in school.

I kept my end of the bargain with my son. I ended up graduating with straight A’s and was valedictorian of my class.

Adult education has changed the direction of my life forever, and that of my kids. Already things are looking up when I go into the workforce. I’m going to pursue post-secondary training for practical nursing.

Through adult education, I gained confidence in myself and my capabilities. It has boosted someone that was broken down. Aside from my parenting, this is my biggest accomplishment. It’s no small feat, and I’m incredibly proud and grateful for this education.

James Hanson: An adult educator's story

I live and work in a small rural community in coastal British Columbia. It is a beautiful place surrounded by the ocean, lakes, and the unending coastal rain forests.

As a community, we are hemmed in by ferries and experience limited opportunities for work, continuing education, and connection to the rest of the province. I didn’t really have a clue as to what was available beyond the ferry terminal when I was a student. Upon graduation, I left to “get an education” and explore the options the world had to offer.

My work life included cooking and serving in restaurants, commercial fishing, small business entrepreneurship, and finally becoming a teacher 15 years after formally entering the work force. The idea of teaching lit up my world and renewed the hope I had been missing.

Hope is not wishful thinking, but the joyful expectation of something good. This hope rekindled a fire that had been missing from my life. The fire was the possibility of making a difference in others’ lives. This hope is still alive today and is what drives me to do the work I do as an adult education teacher.

As an educator, I have had the incredible privilege of sharing in and participating with my students’ stories and journeys. Their stories are often marked with struggle, disappointment, and situations that were beyond their control. Although the individual journeys are different, there are threads of similarity that resound: the perseverance, hope, and commitment that have paved the way for success for themselves, as well as their families.

Today, 20 years into my journey of being a teacher and educator, I still hold onto the promise of possibility. Who will be the next overcomers? What stories will I have the privilege of sharing in? Who are the students who will continue to inspire me?

None of the stories of students’ successes would be possible without a school system that sees a need and steps up to fill the need, despite a student funding model that discriminates against adult learners.

I am thankful and grateful for the opportunity to share in my students’ stories and journeys. I sincerely hope each student has learned as much as they have taught me.


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