A few days ago, I went to a graduation ceremony for dozens of adult students getting GEDs and English-as-a-second-language certificates, and finishing remedial college prep classes in basic reading, writing and math. That reminded me that this time of year we typically celebrate college grads, but we don’t often think about people achieving less-trumpeted educational milestones that are still major accomplishments in their lives.
So I invited to our studios two of those students, each from the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, where I’m a volunteer tutor. Timothy Springer just received his GED at age 33. Sophia Bruny, 25, who was born in Haiti, recently finished what’s called the “Bridge to College” program. I started by asking Timothy what kept him from earning the equivalent of a high school degree until he was in his 30s.
Timothy Springer: Well, honestly, it was work. I just was in the workforce for a long time and I was able to get jobs without anyone ever checking to see that I had graduated.
Sacha Pfeiffer: But most people wouldn’t enter the workforce until they finished high school.
Timothy Springer: Well, honestly, I was under really a lot of pressure in Arkansas, where I was going to school. I was openly gay in 1995 at 15 years old in a very religious Bible Belt neighborhood, so I couldn’t deal with being at school any more. I just would rather try and get a job and escape the Bible Belt. I would go to temp agencies and I would fill out the application and then they would say, “Uh, you didn’t put that you graduated from high school, but you’re pretty smart,” and then would write the date in for me.
So you got by?
Timothy Springer: I got by.
With people assuming, maybe, that you had graduated from high school?
Timothy Springer: Yeah, exactly. I got by. And then I felt like, “I’m a liar, I’m a liar,” I kept thinking to myself. It’s like, I couldn’t lie in front of all these people. And then that’s honestly what drove me to go back to school to get my GED — because I didn’t want to be liar.
And Sophia, you had almost completed your college studies in Haiti when your timetable got interrupted, to put it mildly. Tell us what happened that prevented you from continuing school there.
Sophia Bruny: When the earthquake happened I was in my last semester of third year, so I had just only one year left. Watching a country — entire country — collapse and you don’t really know when everything’s going to get back. You don’t really know when we are going to be able to stand up again. That didn’t affect only my schooling; it affected my family because I lost my sister.
Your sister died in the earthquake a few years ago?
Sophia Bruny: Yeah, she was in school. And we found my sister at her school, because my mom was determined to find her daughter. She was my role model. She [was] everything, like a person that I can look up to. Seeing her die like this in the country, I was like — I was firm for my mom. I was like, I can bear it. But at the end, when everybody was calm, I started to lose control of myself.
So you came to Boston?
Sophia Bruny: Yeah.
And you decided you would continue your school here?
Sophia Bruny: Well, that’s why I came.
Specifically for school, you came?
Sophia Bruny: For school, for school.
Did you speak English very well when you arrived?
Sophia Bruny: No. No, I was afraid. But, you know, taking a new step and uttering a new word is what people fear most.
They fear what most, did you say?
Sophia Bruny: To start over. To speak a new language. Not your language! Not your language! Because I am a grown woman, so I don’t really like when people laugh at me saying a word.
Timothy, what was the hardest part for you about going back to school?
Timothy Springer: Admitting that I needed help because, for me, my math was terrible going back to school. So admitting that, OK, someone’s going to have to sit and help me learn this math all over again, basically.
You’re very well-spoken, though. Was math your weakness?
Timothy Springer: Oh, math was so much my weakness! It’s my Achilles heel. Calculators were my crutch. And so when you realize when you have to take the GED test — for me, I realized that, “Oops, that’s not going to be allowed for half of this process!”
All those years you didn’t have your high school degree, did you ever feel like you were faking it? What was it hard to do without having it?
Timothy Springer: There were moments where I wanted to be able to further my education and go to college, and I realized that I was not going to be able to do that. There were a lot of periods in my life working in file rooms and the mail room, grocery stores. I worked in movie theaters. I always felt like I could be placed in a much more esteemed position, but I wasn’t able to.
Without that high school degree, your upward mobility was going to be limited?
Timothy Springer: Absolutely.
What, for you, was the most fun in terms of going back to get your equivalent of a high school degree?
Timothy Springer: It was fun for me to see the light bulb going off in a lot of people’s heads when I was sitting next to them and being around all these other people — the collective thought where people are like, “Oh, I’ve finally got it!” That was a lot of fun for me.
Watching other people go through that experience?
Timothy Springer: Absolutely. I mean, the fun day for me was when I got my GED. To me, I worked very, very hard for this.
What ideally would you like to do for work?
Timothy Springer: I would love to write for The New York Times, “The Gray Lady.”
Really? You’d like to be a newspaper reporter?
Timothy Springer: Yeah, I would.
And Sophia, now that you’ve completed your English-as-a-second-language studies, you’re basically prepped to go to college. What do you want to do?
Sophia Bruny: I want to go to network technology.
Networks — computers?
Sophia Bruny: Yes.
So you want to go to college to get a degree? Do you know where you want to study?
Sophia Bruny: Yes. At Bunker Hill.
Bunker Hill Community College?
Sophia Bruny: College, yeah.
Do each of you have any words of wisdom or advice for other people who are starting over in the schooling in their life, or maybe didn’t get as far along in school as they wished they had earlier in life? What would you say to them?
Timothy Springer: I would say it’s never too late. It seems like it’s a huge feat, but it’s actually not as hard as you really think it is.
And Sophia, your advice?
Sophia Bruny: If you want something, just step in and go for what you want. No matter what people are saying, no matter your age, keep going, because your dream will come true if you keep going.
Timothy Springer and Sophia Bruny are both fresh graduates of the Community Learning Center in Cambridge. Springer lives in Arlington and received his GED and now hopes to go to college. Bruny lives in Malden and completed the “Bridge to College” program.