Adult education offers hope, confidence

Ready for graduation

Posted: Sunday, June 05, 2005

Lying on the ground after a logging cable snapped and flung him 20 feet, Lyle James can be pardoned for thinking there must be a safer way to make a living.

James, now a college student, and Edna Ettinger were the student speakers at the graduation ceremony Friday at ANB Hall for the Southeast Regional Resource Center's adult education programs.

The center, which offers GED preparation and office-skills training, among other services, is a statewide nonprofit educational corporation based in Juneau.

SERRC guided 162 students toward their GED in the past 12 months, said Carin Smolin, the adult program director. Ninety-six students were from Juneau. The office-skills program trains about 30 people a year.

On Friday night, the graduates followed the blaring, thumping Stroller White Pipes and Drums into the hall to the applause of family and friends.

The ceremony also honored Elizabeth Martin, 90, who was inducted into the national GED Hall of Fame.

Martin found herself with the sole responsibility of raising eight children when her husband, Arthur Martin, died in 1958.

She worked as a housekeeper and nurse's aide but wanted a better-paying job. She earned a GED in 1972 and went on to a career with the U.S. Forest Service.

Without the GED, "I never would have had the courage to apply for state and national government jobs," Martin said in a statement.

The new graduates had the same sentiments.

James, 25, completed his general educational development certificate in September and now attends the University of Alaska Southeast full time. He plans to study anthropology and work with elders.

His high school education in Hoonah was interrupted by a lengthy hospitalization in 1999, and he became discouraged after failing to earn a GED in that town, he said.

James cared for his ill grandparents in Kake for the next four years, waking up at 4 a.m. for a long day of logging. But after James' logging accident, his grandfather urged him to find safer work.

James, on a visit to Juneau, met his future wife, Kolene, a single mother who attended college, worked full time and had a nice home.

"I looked at her and I thought, 'Why can't I do it,' " he said in an interview.

It took a solid year of study at SERRC while incidentally learning Tlingit at UAS, but James earned his GED just about a year after marrying Kolene.

"That was my proudest moment, along with my first-year anniversary with my wife," he said.

"I'd say things have been easier for me because that GED shows I can accomplish something. Once I set my mind to it, I know I can get it done," James said.

Ettinger, a former cannery worker and cashier, wanted a career she could advance in. She expects to complete the five-month office-skills program this month.

For Ettinger, raised in Wrangell with nine siblings, SERRC has become a second home. That's not just because three of her siblings have taken the course and three others are in this spring's class with her.

The course includes business math and English, computer skills, keyboarding, life skills and public speaking. It prepares students for a variety of office and administrative work.

Ettinger, 31, graduated from Kake High School in 1993 but hadn't been in school since. She was reluctant to try the SERRC course, but her father pushed and her sisters talked it up.

"Probably the most amazing transformation has been with her personally," said Pat Magill Stevens, one of the instructors. "She was the shyest little thing in this whole school. It was like we added fertilizer and water, and she just bloomed."

That's because the students connected with each other, Ettinger said. They chose a class name, the Juneau Dream Team, class colors and the slogan "come together." Students tutored each other.

"In small learning groups, the natural teachers started coming out of the groups," Stevens said. "As people like Edna felt secure, they helped others."

In 2003, Edna's sister Camille Cooper became the first of the family to complete the course. She was 39 and pregnant. Now she works at SERRC's migrant education program.

"This has been a total transformation," Cooper said. "I basically worked in the canneries all my life. ... When I found I was pregnant, I needed a career.

"I was always an extremely nervous person," she said. "I could barely look a person in the eye before I started these classes. It has a way of flowering you. We had to be vocal. And feeling that the people and the teachers really cared about you really helped."

Ettinger said she wants to learn more about computers.

"What we learned here in five months is just the beginning," she said. "It was a lot of information crammed in the five months, especially when most of the class came in here not knowing how to start a computer."

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