Maria del Rosario sits in her black graduation gown with a bright blue sash decorated with an embroidered Mexican floral design. She’s the last graduate on the far right in a row of 28 women.
Like her fellow graduates, her eyes occasionally tear up during this special moment that once seemed impossible.
“It makes me think I can do whatever I want,” del Rosario, 37, said.
The 28 women, all mothers, took part in a special graduation ceremony Saturday. They are the first graduating class from Denver Public Schools' community hubs. DPS opened the six family resource centers last fall to help with child care, food, language classes, and GED diplomas. The classes, which helped them pass exams in math, science, reading, and social studies, were in Spanish. Starting in September, the hubs will also be offering the GED in English.
The idea behind the hubs is to empower parents to be role models for their children as lifelong learners. That was on full display at the graduation ceremony, conducted in Spanish.
“We launched this program because there was a need in our community, and it’s helping,” DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero told the graduates. “You should be standing a bit taller today, feeling more excited about what’s in store for you. That is a powerful thing.”
Marrero told the women that they each probably had a few moments when they weren’t sure they were going to make it.
“Yet you dug deep,” he said. “You didn’t give up. You stomped on all that self-doubt. And silenced the critics who said you weren’t worthy. You are worthy. You are bright, strong women who command our respect. You are mothers who take charge and show your children that this is how it’s done.”
Marrero spoke of his own mother, a Dominican immigrant, who died many years ago after a long illness.
“With the odds stacked against her, she found a way to rise above and taught me the value of hard work,” he said.
Many of the graduating women overcame challenges like living in extreme poverty, being single parents, working multiple jobs and experiencing the self-doubt that comes with never finishing high school.
“It wasn’t easy to get here,” Rocio Flores Arechar told her fellow graduates from the podium. “There were many obstacles. Several gave up on the way. Those of us who are here are winners. We achieved one more goal that’s the fruit of our efforts.”
A long journey for Maria del Rosario
For most of her 20 years in the U.S., Maria del Rosario worked three jobs so she and her children could survive. She crossed the border at 18 with a 1-year-old in tow, never having finished high school.
“I didn't speak any English,” she said. “I didn't understand anything.”
But when she could, she volunteered in her children’s school and eventually became president of the school’s PTCO, like a PTA. She attended English classes at the school.
“I noticed that I need to learn more,” she said. “But I didn't have the time to be there full-time because I'm a single mom with four kids and I have two jobs.”
Recently, her youngest child, who is in eighth grade, asked for her help with math.
“I’m like, ‘Wow, I have no idea.’ I didn’t know anything about it. I can’t help you. So, I decided I think it’s time to go back so I can help my son.”
Scrolling through Facebook, del Rosario saw advertisements for getting a GED. She called the number. She told them her story, her problems with the schedule and they said they’d work with her and support her.
And del Rosario, who is a server at two restaurants now, had another realization.
“Now that my kids are older, I decided to start looking at myself, like focus on me because finally, after 20 years, I got my permit to work and my Social Security number. So that opens more opportunities for me.”
She decided to get her GED.
Saturday was an afternoon of speeches, music, tears and joy
It included mariachi bands, Mexican food, traditional campesino dancers, and of course, parents, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, friends, babies and children.
Many of the women said they got their GED for their children.
“I live for my children,” said Arechar. “I fight for my children. I move forward for my children. It’s not a sacrifice. It’s love.”
A new study by researchers at New York University finds that educated mothers help their children succeed at school by expanding their academic knowledge and modeling behaviors and making social connections that lead to educational success.
The women also acknowledged the role they played in each other’s success.
“This wasn’t just a GED class, but we created a community, a class where we always united in supporting each other, (we had) an excellent teacher who was there for us at whatever hour to help us reach our goals,” said Sandra Berenice Anguiano Rodriguez.
GED teacher Mayra Lagunas highlighted the women’s persistence. One woman was pregnant and went into labor during her last exam. She didn’t pass, but she returned, eventually taking the math test four times.
“She did it, she’s graduating today with us,” she said. “They have to work, they have to take care of kids and for us it’s incredible what they do.”
One of the graduating women will go to college. Another secured a job as a DPS paraprofessional, like a classroom aide.
A health scare left del Rosario unsure as to whether she could get her GED
Preparing for four GED exams was grueling. But there was something else. She wasn’t feeling well, so she went to the doctor. They discovered pre-cancer cells. Del Rosario had a biopsy that’s still being analyzed. She wondered if she should drop out to focus on her health.
No, she decided, “I'm just going to put everything in God’s hands.”
After the math test, however, she was crushed.
“I cried because when I finished, I'm like, ‘OK I don't think I passed this because it was really, really hard.’”
She went home dejected and told her children she didn’t pass. Her oldest son, who is studying mechanical engineering at Metropolitan State University, asked if she’d checked the results. She hadn’t. There was no point, she said. He took her phone and went on the GED app. Her children gasped.
“Mom, you did it!” she recalls them yelling. “Oh my gosh, it was the best moment of my life.”
Del Rosario will get the results of her biopsy soon. But today is not the day to think about that. It’s a time to savor those sweet emotions from doing something she thought she could never do.
“I have so many emotions,” she said, smiling. “I want to cry. I want to jump!”
She’s gotten approved to buy a house and that’s her goal now. She’d like to be a paralegal or do something to help people. And she’d like to go to college.
“I’m just really, really excited.”
You want to know what is really going on these days, especially in Colorado. We can help you keep up. The Lookout is a free, daily email newsletter with news and happenings from all over Colorado. Sign up here and we will see you in the morning!