By Tatyana Southerland
It’s been a long journey for 44-year-old Jamaica native Charlene Harper.
Since dropping out of high school in the 10th-grade after becoming pregnant, Harper struggled with illiteracy and spiraled into drug addiction and substance abuse.
“I felt confused, disconnected,” Harper said.
Her life then is in stark contrast to her achievements today. Harper has been recognized by the state as its 2012 Student of the Year, an award given by the New York Association for Continuing/Community Education to non-traditional adult learners who are committed to continuing education.
Harper, along with 25 other students, was honored by the association in March at an awards dinner ceremony. The students were then taken to Albany to meet with state representatives from their districts, and Harper met with state Sen. Shirley Huntley (D-Jamaica) and state Assemblywoman Vivian Cook (D-Jamaica), who presented Harper with a proclamation.
“She’s doing wonderful things in her life, she’s going back to help her community. I hope the proclamation is encouragement,” Cook said.
Three years ago after undergoing treatment for her addiction, Harper made the decision to continue her education and pursue her GED. She sought help from Literacy Partners, a nonprofit based in Midtown Manhattan that provides literacy programs for adults and families within the five boroughs.
“They welcomed me with open arms,” said Harper.
Harper arrived there performing at a fifth-grade reading level and a sixth-grade math level, but she has now passed three out of the five sections of the GED exam. The educators at Literacy Partners took notice of Harper’s hard work and determination and nominated her for the Student of the Year Award.
“Charlene is a wonderful student. She encourages other students to attend classes and is always looking for ways to uplift others,” said Allie Fasth, education center coordinator at Literacy Partners.
Harper said she drew support to finish her GED and gained encouragement from Blessings Boulevard Independent Church in Jamaica. She plans to go on to college to study psychology so she can become a substance abuse counselor and help others.
Furthering education is an option for everyone. There are plenty of adult literacy programs throughout Queens. LaGuardia Community College, the city Department of Education and York College all have programs to service individuals continuing high school education, but continuing education extends far beyond preparing individuals for the GED exam.
Many of the colleges also offer continuing education and professional programs that help individuals who are seeking to change their profession, continue their studies or receive certification in a career field.
St. John’s University, for example, offers an array of courses for pharmacists looking to fulfill certification requirements. York College’s School of Professional and Continuing Education offers courses for health care-related professions and courses through its Small Business Development Center for Continuing Education, a partnership with Turner Construction Co.
The college also has leisurely learning courses as well as classes for those who want to expand their knowledge of their field.
“They improve academic standards and earning potential,” said Cynthia Murphy, executive director of professional and continuing education at York College.
According to Murphy, continuing education programs do not only benefit those seeking to further their education, but also help the community as well because “continuing education’s mission is to serve the community.”
She encourages those seeking to further their education to contact the programs they are seeking to join.
“We always want input for our programming,” said Murphy.
Harper, however, is pretty content with what continuing her education has brought her.
“I’m now a role model to others and to my family as well. If I can do it, so can they,” she said. “Never give up and never give in. It starts with your self-esteem.”