This story is part of (DIS)Invested — a longterm Reader investigation into Omaha’s inequities.
Patricia Paniagua drove home from Metro Community College in early May feeling nervous. After almost two years of studies, the 41-year-old mother of three had just taken an hour-long math test, the fourth and final test to earn her GED, a series of tests that certifies people have the equivalent of a high school education in the United States.
As Paniagua drove away from the testing site, a notification popped up on her phone — her test results were in. She called her husband and told him to log on to her email and have her results waiting for her when she got home.
The GED traditionally stands for the General Educational Development Test, according to ged.com. People who haven’t earned their high school diploma in the United States or finished schooling can take the GED, a series of tests that – upon completion – indicate having a high school level of education. Mathematical reasoning, reasoning through language arts, science and social studies are the four, roughly hour-long tests students must pass to earn their GED accreditation.
When Paniagua walked in the door of her home, her three kids and husband were waiting with the notification pulled up on a tablet.
“We support you, we love you,” her husband spoke slowly in Spanish as he delivered the news, “It says here….there’s no reason to worry because you got your GED!”
Paniagua burst into tears. “I went over the moon,” she said, tearing up at the memory even months later. “At some points I thought I wouldn’t make it, but I did it.”
For individuals like Paniagua who didn’t finish high school diploma in the United States, earning the GED can be a stepping stone to better jobs, wages and higher education opportunities. Many jobs and unions in Omaha require a high school diploma, according to Bob Nikunen, the GED program facilitator at Metro Community College, or MCC.
“Our mission here is to raise people up into the middle class,” said Nikunen. The GED program at MCC has about 400 students and more than 60 instructors, making it the community college’s largest department, according to Nikunen. MCC instructors collaborate with other organizations like the Learning Community Centers to provide GED courses.
Many students who are immigrants start their journey to achieve the GED like Paniagua did — by taking English classes, Nikunen said.
Paniagua, who now works as a front desk registration specialist at One World Community Health Centers, barely spoke English when she and her family moved to Omaha from Guatemala in 2015.
“As a mom, I needed to communicate with the teachers at my daughter’s school, and I couldn’t do that,” Paniagua said.
Her daughter’s teacher told Paniagua about the Learning Community Center of South Omaha, or LCC. Located at 2302 M St., this was where she could get involved in free English language classes for herself and other programs for her whole family. After about two years of English classes, Paniagua’s teachers encouraged her to try and earn her GED certification.
Paniagua was hesitant — while she completed high school back home in Guatemala, math had come as a struggle to her. But the GED could open doors to pay raises, higher education and other opportunities for her and her family, Paniagua’s teacher said.
“I like to challenge myself, so I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna do it,'” Paniagua said.
While anyone can study and prepare for the GED tests on their own, enrolling in online or in person GED classes can help students stay focused and build community. Instructors help students work at their own pace to reach their personal goals – that’s one of the main benefits of taking a class, said Mandy Phillips, instructional manager at the Learning Community Center of South Omaha.
The Learning Community Center of South Omaha’s GED program uses a “two generation approach” that includes educational programming to children that doubles as childcare while their parents are in class, Phillips said.
“The mission of our program isn’t specifically to teach English or get a GED,” said Phillips. “It’s really more about supporting the whole family.”
Participants have education experiences on all levels: it could be from a third grade level to advanced degrees in their home countries
“It’s important not to compare yourself,” Phillips said. “The instructors can really meet everyone where they’re at.”
LCC’s classes are open to parents who have children who are newborn to age four, pregnant mothers and their partners. Families must live in South and southeast Omaha, or sub council five, to participate. The classes are offered in English, so Spanish-speakers who want to take the GED through LCC, like Paniagua, typically start out by taking English classes.
“Diploma de educación básica” is what the GED is referred to as in Spanish, according to Mariano Vazquez-Hernandez, the adult education program manager at the Latino Center of the Midlands. The nonprofit offers GED classes in Spanish.
“If in your home country you didn’t complete your basic education, the GED would be the equivalent to that,” Vazquez-Hernandez said.
The GED is one way for people in immigrant families to continue education and work towards their goals, Vazquez-Hernandez said.
“It’s not just getting your GED,” he said. “It’s how you can become more active in a lifestyle in the United States so you can reach your dreams.”
“It’s not just getting your GED. It’s how you can become more active in a lifestyle in the United States so you can reach your dreams.”— Mariano Vazquez-Hernandez, Latino Center of the Midlands.
The GED also gives participants, especially immigrant parents, the chance to learn how their children are taught certain school lessons and concepts in schools in the U.S.
GED students take one test at a time, and the math portion was Paniagua’s fourth and final test she needed to take. While studying, she realized many of the concepts she needed to learn for the GED were similar to those her 11-year-old daughter Allison Gonzalez Paniagua was learning at school.
“Both of us were struggling in math,” 11-year-old Allison Gonzalez Paniagua said. The two spent evenings working together on the same types of math problems from school and GED classes. “(My mom) would help me, and I would help her.”
By the end of the year, right after her mom passed the GED, Gonzalez Paniagua didn’t only pass her class — she improved her grade in math significantly.
“It feels good now I can help my kids,” Paniagua said. “I’m building this bond with my kids that I’m going to be able to help them at school if they’re struggling with something.”
Completing the GED was worth the challenges for Paniagua. Through many nights of studying and classes twice a week, her husband has supported her and encouraged her to believe in herself. Her children Alexa, 19, Allison and Jeremy, 8. are proud to see her hard work pay off.
“My mom already took that big step doing the GED, she can do so much more now,” said Alexa, who recently completed her first year of college.
That’s Paniagua’s plan. She hopes to use her new GED certification to study sign language to communicate with more people when they come to the clinic’s front desk at her job at One World Community Health Centers.
“It’s really important for us as grown ups to continue our education, not only for our family, for our kids, but for ourselves,” Paniagua said. “It’s never too late, it’s worth it.”
Here‘s where to enroll in GED classes in Omaha:
2902 Edward Babe Gomez Ave., www.mccneb.edu
At MCC, the GED classes and tests are all in English, and Spanish-speakers are encouraged to enroll in English classes ahead of the GED. Students may be placed into a class that works with their schedule or is of their skill level depending on how many years of education they had previously. Call (531) 622 4060 to learn more about classes at MCC.
1612 N. 24th Street, www.learningcommunityds.org
Online and in-person GED classes are offered through the Learning Community Center. This fall, online classes will be offered Monday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon. In-person classes will be offered Tuesday and Friday from 12:45 to 3:45 p.m. In-person classes include onsite childcare and transportation. Call (402) 964 2405 to learn more about programs offered at the Learning Community Center of South Omaha.
4821 South 24th St., www.latinocenter.org
The Latino Center of the Midlands offers GED classes in Spanish along with a wide variety of adult education programming. Call (402) 733 6720 to learn more about programs.