When Jeff Hodge walks through the hallways of Holyoke Community College he's filled with feelings of pride and accomplishment.
"I feel like I belong here," he said.
It wasn't that long ago that Hodge believed he might never get here.
"It took me a long time. Over ten years," said Hodge. "I had some ups and downs. Sometimes I had to make a choice between going to school and supporting my family."
Hodge, now 35, is a student in HCC's Adult Basic Education Transition to College and Careers program (ABETCC). Before that, he was a student at HCC's Adult Learning Center in downtown Holyoke. After years of starts and stops in his decade-long educational comeback, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native and high school dropout finally earned his GED in December.
On Thursday, Hodge gave the keynote speech at the start of College for a Day, an annual event that brings adult learners from all over the Pioneer Valley to campus to experience classes taught by HCC professors. About 150 students from 15 different adult basic education programs attended classes in subjects such as electronic media, culinary arts, health care careers, English, math, and criminal justice.
"Hopefully today will give you a taste of what community college is like and plant a seed and we will see you on campus in the coming years," said Michelle Sedor, Holyoke coordinator for the SABES (System for Adult Basic Education Support) and organizer of College for a Day. "We encourage you all to pursue education, if that is what's right for you."
Like Hodge, many adult learners experience obstacles in their efforts to continue their education.
"Adult learners face a lot of issues: transportation, child care, life issues," said Kermit Dunkelberg, assistant vice president of Adult Basic Education & Workforce Development at HCC. "There are people here who have been out of school a long time, people who have been in the corrections system, young parents. We have programs to help all of you."
Hodge's struggles began as a young man growing up in Brooklyn. "I got in a lot of trouble," he said. "Went down some weird paths, some stray paths. In and out of jail."
He moved to western Massachusetts 17 years ago.
"A lot of people think once you get to a certain age, college is no good for you," he said. "When people told me I should go back to school, I said, "You're crazy.'"
Then, he read an article in the newspaper about a 98-year-old woman who went back to college to earn her degree.
"Ninety-eight years old," he said.
Eventually he found his way to HCC Adult Learning Center and began taking classes. But he also had a family to support.
"It was hard," he said. "I'm not going to lie. You've got your school work. Then you've got your work-work. Then you've got your kids."
After nearly ten years, he took his GED test last March, but failed the math and writing sections. He made a final push at the end of last year after he learned the GED he'd been studying for all these years was being replaced by another test.
"I passed just before New Year's," he said. "That was my Christmas present and my New Year's present to myself."
"Life throws you challenges. It throws you curves," he said. It's up to you to decide what you want. I set a high goal for myself, which is okay. I take it day by day, little by little."
After he completes his ABE TCC class at HCC, Hodge plans to enroll in credit classes. He wants to study business administration and computer programming and hopes to own his own business one day.
"Life is crazy," he said. "You have to grab it when you get a chance."
Photos: (Left) A College for a Day student learns how to mix electronic music using the program Garage Band in a class called "Be Your Own Band" taught by HCC professor Jay Ducharme. (Right) Jeff Hodge gives the keynote speech at the 2014 College for a Day event at HCC.