NEW ORLEANS — Several years ago, Samantha Cornelius was facing a jail sentence and the prospect of losing her kids indefinitely, she said.
On Saturday, she wore a shiny red cap and gown and spoke in front of about 150 fellow 2013 graduates receiving their GED diplomas before receiving her own certificate.
Nearly every seat in Loyola University’s Roussel Hall was filled with friends and family holding flowers, balloons, their faces bursting with expressions of tearful pride.
While any graduation is a happy moment for the graduate’s supporters, there was a tangible sense of exceptional accomplishment at Saturday’s event, with a theme of persevering through adversity uttered repeatedly by speakers.
The General Educational Development tests measure proficiency in science, mathematics, social studies, reading and writing by people who did not earn a high school diploma.
“The people who become the greatest achievers are the ones who overcome the greatest challenges,” said graduate Henry Love, who identified himself as being much older than most of the other graduates.
“It’s not the adversity we face, but how we respond to adversity that defines us,” New Orleans City Councilwoman Kristen Gisleson Palmer told the graduates. Speaking on behalf of the city, “We are so very proud of you,” she said.
Felicia Thomas, a 2012 GED graduate, said she found herself trapped in a cycle of drugs and spending time in jail.
“The situation did not change until my thinking changed,” Thomas said.
She was loudly applauded after announcing her seven years of sobriety and four years without cigarettes.
Manon Pavy, an adult education teacher for more than 20 years with Catholic Charities, said that her students face additional emotional and logistical educational obstacles, including being working parents.
To Saturday’s graduates, Pavy said, “Today, you are an example for all of us — you are our inspiration.”
Orleans Parish Civil District Judge Kern Reese told his own story of crossing paths with someone long ago who told him, “The way you run your mouth like that you should be a lawyer.”
Reese encouraged the graduates to follow the seeds of inspiration they encounter.
“You have reached a day of victory and I commend you,” he said.
The students who gave their testimonials all thanked the people who gave them support.
Graduate Tyronne Lee said he was connected to “the most amazing, thoughtful, caring people.” A graduate of the Youth Empowerment Project, he thanked the staff, and “everyone who had the courage to believe in me when I didn’t have the courage to believe in myself.”
Lee said he hoped to inspire others to get their GED diplomas.
“If you think it’s not worth it, it is,” he said. “If you think you don’t have time, you do. If you think you are too old, you’re not.”
With his GED in hand, “I can be and do anything my heart desires,” Lee said.
The graduates came from eight local adult education programs, including Catholic Charities, Hope House Adult Learning Center, Job 1 Youth Works, New Orleans Job Corps, St. Bernard Adult Education Program, Society of St. Vincent de Paul Sister Lory Schaff Adult Learning Center, and the Youth Empowerment Project of New Orleans.
The graduation ceremony was hosted by The Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans and the Lindy Boggs National Center for Community Literacy.
Cornelius, who introduced herself to the crowd as a “federally convicted felon,” was the only graduate from the U.S. Probation In-House Adult Basic Education GED Program.
According to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in 2009, Cornelius was charged with conspiracy and theft of funds from a federally funded program.
A mother at 15, Cornelius said she found herself at a point where she risked losing everything. But she said she made the decision to “stop the pity party” and change who she was. She thanked her children for loving her unconditionally.
“My capabilities are written on my diploma, my indictment is not written on my diploma,” Cornelius proudly told the audience. “I am now at Delgado Community College with a 4.0 average,” she said to loud applause.