There were lots of smiles and not a few tears Sunday afternoon at Patten Chapel on the UTC campus as 40 walked across the stage to receive their high school general educational development diplomas.
Mia Upshaw's grin was contagious as she talked about her decision to go back for her diploma at 19. She plans to go on to college classes to become a paralegal.
"I knew I needed to do for my son," she said.
Her fiancé, Travis Jackson, was smiling through his tears.
"I'm so proud of her," said the 21-year-old, wiping his eyes. "Nobody thought we could do it. And I'm going to graduate [with a GED] in May.
Throughout the chapel, graduates posed for photos and smiling family members made videos of the moment with cell phones.
Lori Hairrell, executive director of Re:Start, the Center for Adult Education, where the students receive assessments, lessons and testing, said 226 people have earned GEDs in the program since June.
The organization, funded in part by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the United Way of Greater Chattanooga, has been in operation for 50 years. The only cost for students is $55 to take the GED exam, she said.
All of the graduates have a story, Hairrell said.
"Some had great jobs but never graduated from high school. Then their company and their jobs moved to another country. Some married young, dropping out of high school," she said. "Their stories are familiar, but they are rewriting them."
Re:Start has a scholarship fund. For more information, visit www.restartchattanooga.org
Studies have shown that over a 45-year career, a high school graduate can tally $700,000 more in earnings than a dropout, Hairrell said
Roger G. Brown, chancellor of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, gave the graduates a congratulatory address and shared his own comeback story.
He said he and his sister were the only two of 10 children in his Bristol, Tenn., family to graduate from high school. But then he married at 18 and got a job in a foundry.
His boss encouraged him to go back to school, took him to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and helped him register for classes.
"He changed my life," Brown told the graduates. "I was able to go back later and thank him. I hope you'll all thank the people who encouraged you to get here today."
Contact staff writer Pam Sohn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6346.