‘They finished what they started’: GED recipients overcome daunting obstacles, embrace new opportunities

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Jacquelyn Sna Mani participates in the Adult Learning Center and Diploma Completion Program ceremony at 2920 Haskell Ave. on Thursday, June 3, 2021.

Jacquelyn Sna Mani, 20, did not have a traditional childhood. Growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, she saw babies toddle around outside unclothed. Sometimes she’d see children eat grass, bones protruding from their skin. Sna Mani and her own family struggled with homelessness, and poverty.

When her mom had twins in 2012, Sna Mani started homeschool. She spent the fifth and sixth grades at the house, working on school assignments and babysitting her younger siblings so that her mom could work two jobs. Eventually, in high school, Sna Mani had to get a job herself. She worked as a certified nursing assistant while ferrying her siblings to and from school. On top of that, her mother was struggling with heart problems, and the family had to move to Kansas, where many of Sna Mani’s credits failed to transfer. It was overwhelming. Sna Mani had to take a break — but she did not quit.

“My plan has always been to go to college,” says Sna Mani, who spoke of her educational journey before the Lawrence Adult Learning Center’s 2020-21 graduation ceremony on Thursday. Sna Mani was one of 94 GED recipients this year. A GED is the equivalent of a high school diploma.

Bill DeWitt, director of the Lawrence Adult Education Program, is pleased with the number of graduates — about 20 — who confirmed attendance at Thursday’s ceremony at the Lawrence College and Career Center, especially considering this is the center’s first graduation ceremony since COVID-19 hit last year.

“School was not a good experience for these students, and on top of that you have a pandemic, forcing them to come up with new ways to learn,” DeWitt said. “I am grateful they finished what they started regardless of the obstacle. For many of them, this is just a first achievement in line with the many goals they have.”

Raul Juarez-Cruz

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Raul Juarez-Cruz participates in the Adult Learning Center and Diploma Completion Program ceremony at 2920 Haskell Ave. on Thursday, June 3, 2021.

Raul Juarez-Cruz, 31, is one student already focused on his next life goal: building his small painting business. Juarez-Cruz decided to attend GED classes after hearing about the program from a friend. He attended the GED program for about three hours per day twice a week for almost two years.

“It’s not much time,” Juarez-Cruz said. “It’s something you can do.”

Juarez-Cruz was struck by the quality of teachers at the Adult Learning Center.

“They’re the best teachers you could have. If you don’t show up to the school, they call you: ‘Hey, is everything OK?’ They always tried to do the best they could for us,” Juarez-Cruz said. “I feel like they were helping me there. … Without them, I would not have a GED.”

In addition to a GED, Juarez-Cruz, whose first language is Spanish, emerged from the Adult Learning Center with better English fluency and more confidence speaking the language. While earning his GED, he started his own painting company, Home Art JC Painting. Now he says he can use the English skills he acquired to connect with his customers.

“My English has gotten much better,” he said. “I can leave voice messages to my customers now.”

Jisaiah Moton

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Jisaiah Moten participates in the Adult Learning Center and Diploma Completion Program ceremony at 2920 Haskell Ave. on Thursday, June 3, 2021.

Being derailed during late high school was a common theme among many of the GED graduates. During late high school, Jisaiah Moten had to move four times. After the fourth time, his enthusiasm for school had been completely deflated.

“It was tiresome,” Moten said. “All the back and forth and enrolling. I took a break.”

Moten, 20, secured his diploma this year, and is now enrolled at Johnson County Community College, where he plans to earn an associate degree.

“I’m a little nervous, but I’m ready to make progress again,” Moten said.

Sna Mani is also focused on the future. She is enrolled at Haskell Indian Nations University and majoring in Native American and Indigenous studies, with the ultimate goal of going back to Pine Ridge.

“I want to go back with my education and help my community,” she said. “I know everything I’m doing is for them. I want children to know where I came from and know they can get out of it, too.”

Sna Mani’s mother, Rhonda Bear, is delighted that Sna Mani earned her GED.

“Of course I’m proud of her, and surprised she’s doing it now. I thought for a while she wasn’t going to get it done. She was very career-oriented, focusing on her CNA work. Now … she can be in a dorm and focus on her education. No kids to take care of. They are mostly grown now.”

Sna Mani says her mother helped her to break down the overwhelming pursuit of a GED and college enrollment into small, manageable steps.

“(My mom) said, ‘We won’t think about the big picture. We’ll just go one step at a time,'” she said.

Sna Mani not only took all the steps needed to walk across the aisle and don her cap and gown, but she also took the steps required to start college in the fall. And she’s already begun helping her community back in South Dakota.

“I give them money and send them packages with diapers and whatnot,” she said. “Kids shouldn’t have to be punished for what their parents do. I just want to set a good example to all the kids who felt like they got the wrong deck of cards, setting an example for my siblings and all of my little cousins who are still in the rough of it.”

Principal Bill DeWitt

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Principal Bill DeWitt addresses the audience at the Adult Learning Center and Diploma Completion Program ceremony at 2920 Haskell Ave. on Thursday, June 3, 2021.

Adult Learning Center and Diploma Completion Program ceremony

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Graduates participate in the Adult Learning Center and Diploma Completion Program ceremony at 2920 Haskell Ave. on Thursday, June 3, 2021.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Superintendent Anthony Lewis addresses the audience at the Adult Learning Center and Diploma Completion Program ceremony at 2920 Haskell Ave. on Thursday, June 3, 2021.

Jacquelyn J. Little Boy

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Jacquelyn Sna Mani participates in the Adult Learning Center and Diploma Completion Program ceremony at 2920 Haskell Ave. on Thursday, June 3, 2021. She decorated her graduation cap with a Lakota feather.

Graduation caps decorate water bottles

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Graduation caps decorate water bottles at the Adult Learning Center and Diploma Completion Program ceremony at 2920 Haskell Ave. on Thursday, June 3, 2021.

Teacher Ron Robinson

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Teacher Ron Robinson participates in the Adult Learning Center and Diploma Completion Program ceremony at 2920 Haskell Ave. on Thursday, June 3, 2021.

Robert Behrens and Superintendent Anthony Lewis

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Graduate Robert Behrens and Superintendent Anthony Lewis participate in the Adult Learning Center and Diploma Completion Program ceremony at 2920 Haskell Ave. on Thursday, June 3, 2021.

Graduate Allie Rorabaugh and Superintendent Anthony Lewis

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Graduate Allie Rorabaugh and Superintendent Anthony Lewis participate in the Adult Learning Center and Diploma Completion Program ceremony at 2920 Haskell Ave. on Thursday, June 3, 2021.

Counselor Pene Havens

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Counselor Pene Havens participates in the Adult Learning Center and Diploma Completion Program ceremony at 2920 Haskell Ave. on Thursday, June 3, 2021.

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