Proving it's not too late to learn

Nearly 100 students, from the sprite to the elderly, their ages ranging from 18 to 80, received their high-school diplomas and general education development (GED) degrees Thursday night from the Newport-Mesa Unified School District adult education program in Costa Mesa.

Dressed in green caps and gowns, some of the students took classes over the course of several years while holding down jobs before they finally achieved that coveted degree, which will now allow them to either go to college or get a job that requires a high-school diploma.

At the top of the class was Tabethia Lee Armstrong Gonzalez, 40, whose mother died when she was a child and whose father raised her and her sister while all three traveled the world, the father earning money in the field of international trade currency.

Flash forward and at 32 years old, Armstrong Gonzalez found herself in Orange County trying to enroll at Cal State Fullerton. But the counselor told her she first needed to finish high school. An even greater problem was that she only had a sixth-grade education.

“Essentially, I started the sixth grade with a personal tutor, then worked my way up from there. I was 33 years old at the time,” said Armstrong Gonzalez, whose story of always having been on the move, from Central to South America to Europe, at times bordered on being homeless.

Armstrong Gonzalez, with blonde hair and green eyes and freckles, said she, her father and sister would often live in two to three countries every three to six months, sometimes waking up in parks when they couldn't afford a place to live.

The result was Armstrong Gonzalez and her sister never received an education.

“I'm the first one to ever graduate from high school in my entire family,” she said, adding that all her immediate family members are now dead.

Her father died in October 1999 and her sister was murdered in the streets of Miami, a sad incident that sent her to California from Florida to receive help under a special program. She called it a godsend.

Now a Huntington Beach resident and with a high-school diploma in hand, she plans to attend Orange Coast College in the fall, her eyes on a potential degree in business administration.

Stories like that of Armstrong Gonzalez run the gamut in the district's adult education, said Lenora Mitchell, the administrative assistant who performed a beautiful rendition of the national anthem at the ceremony.

Mitchell, herself a recipient of a GED years ago, said some of the students who earned degrees were grandparents and in some instances even great-grandparents. A good percentage of them were Mexican immigrants who found their way to Orange County in search for a better life from their Third World conditions.

Although the school district's Board of Education this year voted to shutter most of the adult education program and cut $860,000 from its budget, there's been a recent move to bring back at least half of the English-learner classes next year. It would amount to a dozen classes, said Bob Nanney, now assigned to head up the program.

He said some of them will be held in the morning and others will be held in the evening. All will take place at the Costa Mesa classrooms on Meyer Place, just blocks away from the California Department of Motor Vehicles office.

The move has been greeted by many students as encouraging news, especially immigrants who want to study for their U.S. citizenship tests, said Nanney.

They were also honored at Thursday's ceremony. They were identified as: Szymanski Wojtyla, Ava E. Munoz de Arced, Maria Veronica, Harvinder Kaur, Karol M. Englebrecht, Gloria Angel de Duarte, Lakhwinder Chand, Maria de Lourdes de Mendoza, Oij Tjin Lion, Arifin Setiadi and Sergio Rodriguez Manzo.

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