It’s never too late to return to education. Just ask Liz Smith.
Educators, administrators and professionals are gathering in Ankeny this week to network, self-invest and learn best practices at the Iowa Building Your Future with Adult Education and Literacy Conference. These individuals provide guidance, support and encouragement to the thousands of Iowans who take the first step each year toward completing a high school diploma, learning to speak English or improving educational skills.
Through their guidance and efforts, the professional are helping Iowans, like Liz Smith, build their futures. This is Smith’s story.
It is heartbreaking to hear of a runner quitting a marathon at the 25th mile, but that is what Liz Smith did, educationally speaking. Even though she was so close to the finish line, Smith dropped out of high school during her senior year.
Now in her third semester as a college student at Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC) and preparing to transfer to Loras College to study communications, Smith looks back at her path and the people and programs that helped her get to where she is today.
“It was a culmination of things, really,” Smith said. “One of my close friends graduated high school early and she was really the only one who motivated me. I started hanging out with a lot of friends who weren’t really friends and made some bad decisions. I just lost motivation completely. It felt like nobody really cared, so I just quit going.”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, high school dropout rates increase as grade levels increase, culminating with the highest rates during 12th grade. Reasons for dropping out vary from falling behind in school work to needing to help financially support their families.
“I got a good job with 7-Up/Snapple and was making good money without a diploma,” Smith said. “I met my husband and got married and after working for a few years, we decided to start a family. I had a difficult pregnancy carrying twins and was on bed rest. I realized that if I went back to work after the twins were born, my entire paycheck would go toward daycare, so I stayed home to take care of my family.”
Fast forward six years. With her twin girls getting ready to start kindergarten, Smith started thinking more seriously about earning her high school equivalency diploma.
“With the girls getting ready to start school, I really felt like I needed something for myself,” Smith said. “My husband has always been supportive. He understood that I needed something meaningful to do with my time. I had been out of school for 10 years and I was nervous, but starting school at the same time as my girls made sense. Setting a good example for them really motivated me to take that first step.”
After dropping her girls off for their first day of school, Smith took a pivotal first step too and walked into Northeast Iowa Community College’s Dubuque Center. She was just going to see what it would take to complete her high school equivalency diploma, but ended up starting the very next day.
“I had been out of school for 10 years, so it was scary, especially the math,” Smith said. “But I didn’t want to fail. When I was in high school, I felt like it was bad to ask for help.”
She turned to the Dubuque Center, which houses NICC’s adult education and literacy programs.
“They showed me that they wanted to help – they wanted me to succeed,” Smith said. “The most important thing I learned was that it is OK to ask questions.”
And ask questions she did. Smith utilized the program’s learning center every day, getting help and working every morning on math with Jim Tranel, who was a learning coach at the Dubuque Center at that time.
Tranel, who teaches all high school equivalency program (HSED) subject areas (reading, writing, social studies, math and science), believes everyone can succeed no matter where they are starting if they are willing to try and if they have someone in their corner.
“If you have a willing student, and you are friendly and pleasant with them and build trust, you can start working together to move forward,” Tranel said. “My job is to teach them to where they are academically and help them build their confidence.”
A big part of Smith’s success in the beginning was just showing up.
“Liz was very consistent, she always showed up,” Tranel said. “That is a big part of being successful. If students aren’t there, we can’t teach them.”
Smith initially started the program thinking that a high school equivalency diploma would be the end, but the Dubuque Center staff started talking to her about college. Students enrolled in the adult education program are given three free credit hours at NICC as an incentive to get them going. They work hard to help students find resources, financial and otherwise, and help make the transition to credit-bearing coursework and programs easy.
“They made everything less intimidating,” Smith said. “After I earned my high school equivalency diploma, they helped me find financial aid. They even helped me set up all my classes and schedule. They showed me that I can do it from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. when my girls are in school.”
Smith attributes her smooth transition to college to the Dubuque Center staff as well as to her NICC academic coordinator Jodi Kremer. Kremer also is an academic advisor for the federal TRIO programs, which provide student support services to help disadvantaged students ultimately transfer to a four-year college. Through TRIO, services such as individualized tutoring and campus visits are provided at no cost to the students.
The TRIO program at NICC serves 160 students total, allowing Kremer to get to know her students really well and help them to find their paths The office is set up in a way that is inviting and convenient for students. They have an open door policy and students can stop in anytime without an appointment, a benefit that Smith takes full advantage of.
“I stop in and talk to Jodi at least once a week,” Smith said. “If I am feeling overwhelmed with classes, need help on how to talk to a professor, or am just plain old stressed out, she can talk me through it.”
Now a campus leader currently serving as the president of iMPACT, NICC’s student services organization, Smith is setting her sights on earning a four-year degree. Knowing that Smith was interested in communications, Kremer helped her find area schools that offered that major and took her on campus visits. Loras just felt like the right fit and represents a pinnacle that Smith only used to dream about.
“I would tell students today that it is never too late to go back to school,” Smith said. “If you have that motivation and you have people willing to help you out, take advantage of it. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. Don’t be afraid to go back, don’t feel lost, and don’t be afraid to get involved. In high school I didn’t join anything, but I found that I love it! Try new things and never stop asking questions!”
With a willingness to put herself out there and never give up, Smith is on a course to reach all of her goals. She even had the opportunity to represent NICC on a recent legislative day where she was able to talk to Iowa legislators about the impact adult education and community colleges have had on her life.
“Liz likes to engage other people, she is a real student leader,” Kremer said. “She is going to do great things. Communications and public relations are where her gifts are. Giving back is what fills her bucket. I see her making a big difference in the world, just watch. And all because she was brave enough to take that first step and walk through the Dubuque Center’s door."