One credit and more than 32 years stood between Renee McNeal and completing her high school education.
The 51-year-old city resident thought she graduated with Mohonasen High School’s Class of 1980, but didn’t attend the ceremony and never thought about picking up her diploma. Life moved on for McNeal, who had a daughter and then struggled with substance abuse.
Then three years ago, McNeal got sober. And with her faith driving her, she decided to start attending Schenectady County Community College in June 2012. Only when she went to pick up her transcript did she realize she had fallen just short of graduating three decades earlier.
The discovery was crushing and empowering at the same time,
“After the tears dried up, I said to myself, ‘What do I do next?’ ” she recalled Thursday.
McNeal immediately enrolled in the Washington Irving Adult and Continuing Education Center. She approached education with fierce tenacity, and after a semester of study, she breezed through her General Education Development test with 650 points more than needed for her diploma.
McNeal didn’t stop there, either. She enrolled in two community college courses last winter and ended the semester with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average.
On Thursday, McNeal heard her name called before a packed auditorium at Central Park Middle School. With her ear-to-ear smile never diminishing, she thrust her hand in the air and pointed to the sky for a moment before accepting her diploma from Jesse Roylance, the center’s director of adult education.
McNeal was among 67 students from the center receiving a diploma at this year’s ceremony. Some were in their teens, others in their 50s, but all were proud of their accomplishment.
Each had their own unique circumstance for attending the center. Edward Bryant felt compelled to seek a degree in order to find his way in a workforce that all but mandates a high school diploma.
The 50-year-old construction worker dropped out of high school to drive trucks with his father. Back then, he didn’t feel the need for a degree and his employers never asked for one.
Today is a different story, he said. Good jobs start with a high school diploma, and when his girlfriend suggested he seek one, Bryant decided to take the test in December — and passed on the first try.
“I can still remember getting that letter in the mail,” he said.
Likewise, 43-year-old Jonathan Abraham viewed his diploma as a way to open job opportunities. With his equivalency degree, he’s now one class from an apprenticeship he hopes will translate into a spot in an electrician’s union.
“I waited way too long to do it,” he said of earning his diploma.
Others see a GED diploma as a means to an end. Leanna Arimont felt as though she was going nowhere in high school and suspected she’d never earn her diploma the traditional way. Now she’s attending trade school to be a barber. Eventually, she plans to return to school to earn a degree in child psychology.
“I wanted to hurry up and get out of here,” she said. “I wanted to get on with my life.”
McNeal, who now works as a nursing assistant at Dutch Manor in Rotterdam, hopes to complete her associate’s degree and then possibly head to a four-year institution. She may even attend Marist College, where her 27-year-old daughter, Alana, will start classes next fall.
Henri Celestine grinned as he caught sight of McNeal in her blue cap and gown, her fire-red 2013 tassel dangling over the mortarboard. McNeal was the type of student he likes seeing in his classes, one who refuses to give up, no matter how the odds are stacked.
“From the time she came in, she said this was just an obstacle,” recounted the Washington Irving teacher.
The degrees will not only open doors for the graduates, but also increase their earning potential, explained Mark Leinung of the state Department of Education. While those without a high school degree make an average annual salary of $23,000, those with the diploma earn $32,000 annually.
Schenectady City School District Superintendent Laurence Spring lauded the graduates for their persistence. He also urged them to view their diplomas with pride, because none of them were earned easily.
“What you have accomplished shouldn’t be taken lightly,” he told the graduates. “You should hold [the diploma] up high. We do.”