Meet two members of Parkland College's inaugural Accelerating Opportunity program, which aims to boost the rate of students making the transition from GED completion to postsecondary education.
CHAMPAIGN — The letter arrived last spring and at first Christopher Moore didn't think much of it.
It was from Parkland College and he was invited to consider enrolling in a new program that would entail working toward his GED while earning college credits and a welding certificate.
Over the years, he'd start and stop studying for the GED, but never quite went after it. At the urging of his wife and a friend, he figured he'd at least go to a meeting to hear more about this new program.
"I thank God for that letter every day," he said this week.
If not for that letter (not to mention the support of Parkland staff, family and friends and his work in the program), the 37-year-old Moore said he probably would be hauling garbage for the rest of his life.
The former "sanitation engineer" now hopes one day to launch a mobile welding business.
Tonight, Moore and other students who passed their high school equivalency exams will celebrate with a ceremony in the Parkland College theatre.
Along Moore's side will be classmate and fellow Urbana resident Elmore LeShoure. Both were part of the community college's inaugural Accelerating Opportunity program, which aims to boost the rate of students making the transition from GED completion to postsecondary education.
These are students who, as LeShoure put it, have had "a lot of hurdles to jump over."
Aside from maybe their moms and wives, not many people would peg them as success stories, Moore said.
Diagnosed with learning disabilities at an early age, Moore described himself as a hyperactive child and "one of the worst students to walk the halls" of Heritage High School in Broadlands. After dropping out, he ended up serving time in juvenile prison.
"I'm not proud of it, but I'm not ashamed of it," Moore said of his past.
"I'm a different person now. I feel confident about my future," he said. With the GED and a certificate in welding, Moore wants to continue to earn additional, advanced certifications in welding and to return to Parkland in the fall to begin work on an associate's degree.
Now armed with his GED and his own welding certificate, the 39-year-old LeShoure also wants to advance to the next certification level and has begun the process of searching for a job in the field.
"It changed my life," LeShoure said of the program.
For LeShoure, the ride hasn't exactly been easy. He figures he took the GED exam about 10 times throughout the years.
"It's really been a challenge for me," he said.
After he dropped out of Champaign Central High School in the '90s, he moved to Georgia to live with an aunt while his family struggled through tough times. He later returned to Champaign-Urbana but continued to struggle working in low-paying jobs. While serving time in the Illinois Department of Corrections, he began studying again and grappled with some areas of the test, particularly with math. He kept on and his scores continued to improve.
Last fall, after taking the test again, he learned he was only 10 points away from passing. Two days later, he registered to take the exam again in late December at Richland Community College in Decatur. It was the last time he could take the test before the GED switched to its new format.
"I was waiting for the results, sweating bullets. When I found out (that he passed), I dropped to my knees and I thanked God. ... It was like a big burden lifted off my shoulders," he said.
"He doesn't let things get in his way. Persisting through those challenges — that's Elmore," said Tawanna Nickens, Parkland's dean of adult education, who oversees the Accelerating Opportunity program.
Parkland is one of 18 community colleges around the state offering the program, which enrolls "adult learners" in GED classes and credit-level classes. (Adult learners don't have a high school diploma or GED or are English language learners.) Colleges participating in the program zero in on designated career paths. At Parkland, the focus is in welding; at other schools, the emphasis is on different areas, such as health careers, manufacturing and transportation, distribution or logistics.
In the Accelerating Opportunity program, students take basic adult education courses (such as in writing, reading and math) at no cost. But students do have to pay for the welding courses, which they can also take at the same time.
If they stick with the program at Parkland, those credit-level classes can lead to a certificate in Industrial Welding Level 1.
Prior to starting in the program last fall, LeShoure and Moore had a little welding experience, but over the course of the two semesters they've come to love the ability to work with their hands, fixing items and creating new things.
Parkland officials are considering ramping up the program for next year, rolling it out in different industries beyond welding, Nickens said.
Not all who started last fall with Moore and LeShoure completed the program this spring.
"Some did leave. They didn't just walk away. They had life issues they had to work through and they can come back. The beauty of the program is ... they can take one course at a time," Nickens said.
For adult learners who are working full-time, often in low-paying jobs, and who don't always come from families where parents or siblings have college degrees, community college can be a challenging, unfamiliar environment.
"It can be intimidating and some don't see themselves as college students," Nickens said.
LeShoure and Moore also both dealt with losing family members — LeShoure's younger sister passed away earlier this year and Moore's mother died in 2013.
Part of the Accelerating Opportunity's goal is to offer a high level of support to students so they understand how the college and its staff can help them — help them increase their earning potential and help them sustain their family better, Nickens said.
"Our job is connecting them with resources, planting the seed 'You can do this,'" Nickens said.
In addition to meeting with other Parkland staff, Moore and LeShoure met weekly with Nickens, to talk about juggling work and school and family obligations and other issues.
"They are fine young men. I treated them with dignity and respect, and they did the same to me," said Billy Wirth, who coordinates the welding program at Parkland. "Both fellows have wonderful personalities. They're open and honest, always smiling.
"Life got in the way for some of them, but these two hung around and now they're looking at furthering their college education. I hope I see them again in the fall."
LeShoure and Moore will speak at tonight's ceremony. Their message?
"Stick to it. If you have problems, ask for help," said Moore, who added that Parkland staff "go the extra mile to make sure you succeed."
"Every time I turned around, there was support," LeShoure said.
"Parkland is truly a community college," Moore said.
What: GED Graduation Ceremony
When: 7-8 p.m. today
Where: Parkland College Theatre, 2400 West Bradley Ave., Champaign
Who: Anyone who passed the high school equivalency program since last June through Parkland, Urbana Adult Education or the Regional Office of Education in Rantoul. Guests are also welcome.