MIDDLEBURY/BRISTOL — When Michelle Dwire dropped out of high school in the beginning of her junior year, she had no idea the impact it would have on her life. She was 17 and pregnant, and finishing high school was not her top priority.
“I never really thought about getting my high school diploma,” said Dwire, a Bristol resident. “I didn’t really think it was that important.”
Thirty years later, Dwire knows better. Quitting school, she said, “was probably the worst decision I’ve made in my life.”
On Thursday, she will be among the 12 graduates of the Vermont Adult Learning (VAL) adult diploma program, finally earning the degree she wished she had attained decades ago.
“I didn’t really believe in myself, and just thought it was too late,” said Dwire. “But now I know that it’s never too late. It really isn’t.”
VAL will celebrate the achievements of Dwire and the other students who have completed the General Education Development (GED) credential, the Vermont adult diploma program, or Vermont’s unique high school completion program on Thursday, June 9. The ceremony will begin at 6 p.m. at the Kirk Alumni Center at Middlebury College.
Dwire, 46, has come a long way, both personally and geographically, since her decision to quit school. After her parents divorced, she moved from Vermont to Florida, where she attended two years of high school, before her pregnancy led her to drop out. For 20 years, she stayed in Florida and never gave her education a second thought.
“I quit, and life kind of went on from there,” said Dwire.
But the reason she quit eventually became her impetus for relocating to Vermont. When her daughter, Amanda Michelle, moved to Vermont to be closer to her grandmother, Dwire soon did the same.
“Most of the reason I came back to Vermont was because of my daughter and my grandkids,” said Dwire.
That was four years ago. Since then, Dwire has worked various jobs, from helping out at her mother’s senior care home in Bristol to working at Subway and Shaw’s in Middlebury. She also worked occasionally for At Home Senior Care. But it wasn’t long before Dwire began wishing for something more.
“I just came to a crossroads in my life where I just didn’t know what to do next,” said Dwire, who found herself thinking that, “there’s something else I can do with my life besides just working at a grocery store.”
That’s when Dwire began to regret the decision she made in her teens.
“I found that any other job that I tried to get, you had to have a high school diploma,” she said.
Even so, Dwire was intimidated by what she assumed would be a long, arduous road to a diploma. Then she took a computer class at VAL so that she could communicate more easily with her daughter and grandchildren, and there she discovered their adult diploma program.
The portfolio-based program is open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 82, and culminates in a real diploma from the high school in the student’s district. VAL assessors work with students in the program to develop a portfolio of work, much like traditional Vermont high school students do throughout their four years. The portfolio ultimately is reviewed and approved by the Vermont Department of Education. Students work at their own pace, since in many cases they are working around work and family responsibilities.
“It’s very difficult for an adult to fit education into their lives as workers and family members and citizens,” said Ann Crocker, the manager of VAL in Addison County.
Now, almost exactly a year after enrolling in the program, Dwire can see the light at the end of the tunnel. As is common among adults who return to school, Dwire has found it challenging to return to the role of the student after so long, but ultimately she feels it was that experience that makes the degree so valuable.
“I really wanted to do the work,” Dwire said. “I wanted to go back and refresh my memory, (because) there was actually a lot of school that I missed … I feel like I did the work. I don’t feel like I just went and took a test and got my diploma. And that’s what I really liked about it.”
Now that she has earned her degree, Dwire feels free to explore many more potential careers, and even to continue her education. She has enjoyed caring for the elderly, and is now interested in exploring opportunities within the medical profession.
“It’s been a big wall for me, not having my diploma,” said Dwire. “(Now) that wall is gone. And now I feel like I can do anything.”
Dwire would encourage anyone who thinks it’s too late to get their degree to consider enrolling in a program at VAL, where the attitude is that it’s never too late to learn.
Crocker says at Vermont Adult Learning they don’t use the term “drop out.”
“We say ‘step out,’” said Crocker, the manager of VAL for over 20 years. “You step out for awhile, and then when the time is right, you come back. And sometimes it takes people several years to accomplish their goals, so it’s important … to recognize that it isn’t a failure to know that this isn’t quite the right time.”
All the same, Dwire doesn’t encourage anyone to take the path that she did. Though she is very proud of her accomplishment, she knows it took 30 years longer than it could have.
“Kids who are thinking about quitting school … that’s just not the thing to do. Just go to high school, get it done, and you’ll be so glad you did.”
Reporter Ian Trombulak is at [email protected]