On the front and center row Tuesday night, June 6, a young girl proudly held up a brightly colored sign that read “Proud of our Mommy.”
She certainly had reason to be.
Considering the long, winding and all-too-painful road Andrea Foley traveled to get her High School Equivalency, the ceremony at Southwestern Community College’s Jackson Campus was the perfect opportunity for her family to celebrate the Macon County native’s tenacity.
Two years after her father died of lung cancer – and shortly before her own high school graduation – Foley left home with her then-boyfriend and moved to South Carolina.
Then life happened.
Foley got pregnant. A family squabble left Foley and her boyfriend homeless for a brief time. A shoplifting incident landed Foley in a county jail for 12 hours. Drug abuse led to more bad decisions and a suicide attempt.
But like every other graduate honored June 6 at SCC, Foley made a decision to change her life by pursuing an education. Her turning point came a couple years after she became drug-free.
“I came to Franklin to visit my grandmother,” Foley recalled. “That’s when my life turned around completely. I met the love of my life (Andrew Foley), the one who loved me back to normal. He helped me better myself and pushed me to be the best me I could possibly be.”
That included enrolling in SCC’s High School Equivalency program. Though she had previously come within one class of completing her GED, that progress was lost when the format changed in 2014. So she started from ground zero and steadily worked her way through SCC’s program then earned her diploma.
Before walking across Southwestern’s stage, she landed a job at Grandview Manor nursing home. She plans to enroll in SCC’s Nurse Aide program this fall and hopes to someday become a Registered Nurse or Med Tech.
“I have had some amazing people encouraging me and pushing me along the way,” said Foley, 26. “My husband and his family, my mother (Della Barnette) and other family members. And my wonderful teacher, Mrs. (Juanita) Arnold, is amazing and has such a big heart for her students.
“My two beautiful daughters (Brandi, age 7; and Alyssa, age 3) are my biggest fans,” she added. “My only hope in life is that when they saw me walk across that stage, they know that their mommy never gave up. I am strong because of my scars and mistakes from the past. … Struggles and battles of your past make you the person you need to be. You have have to have a ‘Why’ in life, a reason to overcome your past.”
Foley was among more than 50 SCC graduates honored for earning either a High School Equivalency diploma or a Landscape Design & Management ELA Pathway certificate through SCC’s Educational Opportunities department in the past year.
Foley’s journey inspired not only her classmates but also her instructors.
“Andrea is a very determined young lady,” Arnold said. “She’s had her hardships. But when she got the the point where she wanted to change things, she set her goals and achieved them. She’s extremely smart, and she has a magnanimous personality. If we had a class president, it would have been her. She has tremendous leadership qualities.”
Educational Opportunities offeres adult basic education, English language/civics education, job and career preparation and developmental education in addition to high school equivalency.
“We strive to meet the needs of every student who walks through our doors, and we try to help them see that our Educational Opportunities department is only the beginning of their educational journey,” said Debbie Smith, Educational Opportunities director. “That’s one of many reasons we’re so proud of Andrea. She’s overcome so much in her life. She’s learned from her mistakes and is creating a better life for herself and her family by completing her High School Equivalency and pursuing a college eduation.”
The Landscape Design & Management ELA Pathway is an opportunity that prepares English as a Second Language students for the workforce while they’re learning English. They learned concepts and theories to landscaping management then applied those skills in a three-dimensional model.
Those models were on display during Tuesday’s ceremony.
One of the landscape graduates was Sylva resident Jesus Sandoval, who needs only to complete the math and writing portions of his High School Equivalency. While taking the prep classes at SCC, he’s been working a full-time maintenance job at a local hotel and a part-time floor tech job at a local hospital.
“The most challenging part has been managing my family, school and work,” said Sandoval, 34, who is raising three children with his wife Janet Martinez-Sandoval. “The support of my wife from the beginning has been big. She always encouraged me to get my education. And the help of Miss Pati (Dr. Patricia Graham, SCC’s ELA instructor and reading specialist) has been so important. She knows what we need every time, and she helps me get to the next level.”
Like Foley, Sandoval hopes to become a CNA. He also would like to serve as a translator so that he can help people in the same situation as he’s been through.