A College Degree Never Crossed Her Mind

Growing up in Brazil, Celeste Tomaz longed to go to a traditional school.

Celeste’s American-born father abandoned her Brazilian mother and their seven children when Celeste was six years old. Celeste did not attend school; she had to be resourceful and taught herself (as well as helping her mom teach her brothers and sisters). Her education reached roughly the fifth grade level. She married young, while still a teenager, and had few skills. Fortunately, she spoke both English and Portuguese, so she was able to find work helping Brazilians learn English. But, as she puts it, without a proper education, her options were limited. Celeste Tomaz and her family

Four years ago, Celeste, her second husband and their two children moved to the United States hoping for a better life. Neither she nor her husband had graduated high school. They are doing their best to support their family, but it is a struggle. Celeste felt guilty that she hadn’t finished her education. She knew that to get a better-paying job, she needed to get her high school equivalency (HSE) diploma. Harper was close by, and its HSE program had a good reputation, but that didn’t mean it was going to be easy.

“I thought I was so old and so behind. I thought I would be the exception in the classroom. But to my surprise, there were other moms like me,” said Celeste. And everyone she encountered at Harper helped make the transition more comfortable. “The people in the Adult Education Department made me feel welcome and at home,” recalled Celeste. Within two semesters, Celeste passed the HSE exam. As she neared completion of the program, Maria Knuth and Jennifer Bell, both faculty in AED, started talking to her about going on to college.

“College? It never crossed my mind,” said Celeste. “My mother didn’t have a college degree, I had no family to guide me through the process. I didn’t understand the next steps.”

Integrated into the HSE program is the Bridge to College and Career Success class, a class that not only helps students explore career opportunities and educational options, but also prepares them for college success. As part of the class, students complete and submit a college application (free of charge). This was the exact type of guidance and encouragement that Celeste needed.

Through the AED program, Celeste’s confidence has really grown. “She has come to believe that she can learn and develop new skills - all it takes is persistence, effort and practice,” noted Maria. Her confidence developed from her performance in class, the support and encouragement she received from her teachers, passing the HSE exam and, to top it off, receiving the Lane and Patricia Moyer GED scholarship. “She now sees there are so many possibilities and so much for her to explore,” said Maria. “I believe in my heart that we have only seen the beginning of what Celeste can accomplish.”

Now Celeste has set her sights on getting a degree in psychology. Because she is balancing her role as a mother and as a student, she is starting by taking three college courses, including honors English. “I am being realistic,” said Celeste. “I don’t want to take on too much and get discouraged. I really want to do well.” Celeste is also aware that she is a role model for her children. Her daughter is only a few years away from graduating high school and realizing that soon she is going to be heading to college. “I love when the kids ask me, ‘How was school today?’ I am grateful that I can pass this on to them. I am so thankful for all the people at Harper who believed in me. I went to Harper with tunnel vision, and now the world has opened up for me.” It has also opened up for her husband – following her lead, he is currently enrolled in the HSE program.