It’s a warm Thursday evening in August and St. Cajetans Cathedral on Denver’s Auraria Campus is filled with a celebratory crowd. Everyone rises as the first strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” are played and the graduates, in their black caps and gowns, begin the commencement procession.
Each one proudly marches forward—five of the graduates completed The Gathering Place’s program—but perhaps the largest smile in the room is the one on Berda’s face.
Berda is originally from southwest Texas and moved to Denver in 1976 with the youngest of her two sons. She had finished the ninth grade, but dropped out of school to get married and start a family.
“When I look back, I know how I would have done things differently. But life just happened,” she says.
Soon after she arrived in Denver, Berda started looking for opportunities to obtain her GED. “I tried to go to different GED classes, but I couldn’t make it work,” she says. “I was working and taking care of my son.” So Berda waited until her son was grown before she returned to pursue her dream of obtaining her GED.
As she stands in front of the cathedral crowd, Berda, like all of the other graduates this evening, is asked to answer a few questions before she receives her diploma.
When did she finish her GED testing? In May, she says, but is quick to add that it took her five years in total to complete the process. What was her greatest obstacle in completing the GED? Fear, she responds. Fear that she couldn’t do it. And what is she planning to do now? Give her mind a chance to rest, Berda says, as those in the room laugh with her. Then, she says, she is thinking about taking some business classes at the Community College of Denver.
Five years. “It was a long journey,” Berda admits. She started working on her GED certification in 2008 at The Gathering Place. She passed her reading test that year, but “it was all too much information,” she says. So, she stopped coming to classes and tutoring sessions. The next year, she started again; this time at the Empowerment Program, a nearby organization that assists women with a variety of support services. While there, she passed her social studies exam in 2009 and her science exam in 2010. But once again, the information and stress were overwhelming and Berda decided it would be best for her to take a break from studying and testing for the entire year of 2011.
In 2012, Berda returned to The Gathering Place to study for her final two tests: writing and math. “I was coming to The Gathering Place on Mondays and Wednesdays and going to Learning Source [a GED program offered in the building where she lived] on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” she says. A tutor advised her to focus on one test at a time, so Berda chose writing first. She was met with disappointment when she failed her first attempt, but collected herself, worked to clear her head, and was successful on her subsequent effort.
Then, on May 1, 2013, Berda passed her final test—math—allowing her to achieve her ultimate goal just
four months shy of her 60th birthday. “I knew I needed to finish up my GED. The next one will be harder and you have to take it on the computer,” Berda says, referring to the statewide changes that will be implemented in January 2014.
“A lot of people along the way encouraged me and my tutors just wouldn’t let me go,” she continues. And her advice to others in the process of earning their GED? “Don’t give up!” she says with a smile.
As the ceremony ends, Berda is invited back to the stage to read an inspirational poem by Joanna Fuchs. “Graduation is a time for wishes,” she begins, reading each line carefully. A few moments later, the poem concludes: “Whatever you do or don’t do, you’ll still have the love of family and friends. We wish you the best. We hope you fulfill all your dreams. We know you will do well.”
We do, indeed. Congratulations, Berda!