Two adult learners who came through HCC's adult basic education programs were honored at the State House last week as Outstanding Students of the Year by the Massachusetts Coalition for Adult Education.
Julienne Muhawenimana, an African refugee who now lives in Springfield, enrolled at HCC's Ludlow Area Adult Learning Center to learn English in 2008. Milton Rivera, of Three Rivers, came through the Adult Basic Education Transition to College and Careers (ABETCC) program run by HCC and the Community Education project.
Less than four years ago, Rivera was sitting in a jail cell at the Hampden County House of Corrections. Last week, he was giving a speech at the State House. Tomorrow, Saturday, May 26th, Rivera will graduate from HCC with a GPA of 3.75 and an associate degree in human services.
"Whoever thought I would be standing here?" Rivera said last week during the State House ceremony. "I never thought I ever would. It is really a great honor."
Rivera, 47, traveled five hours a day by bus to attend HCC. His journey to college began when he was in a halfway house and met Elia Dreyfuss, coordinator of the ABE-TCC program. His background was similar to many of the inmates at the Ludlow corrections facility: low literacy, poor family background, low self-esteem and years of substance abuse. He entered the ABE-TCC program with marginal academic skills and no previous expectation of college success. As a member of the ABE-TCC class, Rivera was known for his hard work, excellent attendance and his unwavering support of his classmates.
"Milton serves as an example of someone who has completely transformed his life through hard work, persistence, volunteerism and taking advantage of every resource available to him," Dreyfuss said at the ceremony. "He is an exemplary student and human being."
Today, Rivera is an ABE-TCC mentor. He frequently speaks to prospective college students and pre- and post-release inmates about his experience; encouraging them to pursue post-secondary education. He was president of the Green Key Honor Society and the Human Services Club and led the drive to open a campus food pantry. He will be attending Westfield State College in fall 2012.
Born in Rwanda of Burundian parents, Muhawenimana spent 13 years in a refugee camp in Tanzania before coming to the United States to escape civil war. Knowing no English, for two years she studied at the Gray House in Springfield in the morning, the Massachusetts Career Development Institute in the afternoon, and the Ludlow Area Adult Learning Center (LAALC) in the evenings.
By 2010, her English language skills were so strong she was eligible for an intensive workforce development class there. After graduating, she enrolled at Holyoke Works in an ABE/CNA training program. In 2011, she graduated from Holyoke Works with a CNA certificate. She got a driver's license, and found two jobs as a CNA.
In 2012, she returned to LAALC to speak to other students about her persistent journey. Julienne is currently taking a pre-GED class at Read/Write/Now in Springfield, and her plans are to earn her GED, attend college, and become a nurse.
"Julienne is one of the most persistent people I know," said Kermit Dunkelberg, LAALC director. "As a student, she has remained focused on her goal of eventually becoming a nurse, accomplishing all the steps toward her goal: learning English, getting a CNA certificate, a driver's license, and a job (in fact, two jobs), all while raising three children. Her smile and laughter always light up the classroom. No matter how difficult her journey has been, she is always joyful."Photos: (Left) Julienne Muhawenimana stands in front of the State House in Boston. (Right) Milton Rivera holds his award.