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When I announced my plans to go back to school, my seven-year old grandson told me I was going to need a backpack.

For little kids, a backpack makes them feel important and special.

Now, a year and a half after I enrolled at Insight School of Kansas, I have something better. At 45 years old, I have my high school diploma.

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I dropped out of school at 18 when my daughter was born and at the time my grandparents made me promise that I would go back to finish my degree. But, over the years, the idea of getting my degree got farther and farther away.

I was working at a grocery store and at different restaurants to support us, without even the time to consider going back to school. Life only got busier. I had my son, found myself in an abusive marriage and I hit rock bottom. By the time I turned 40, I felt trapped.

I knew going back to school was an option, but I hesitated. I imagined myself sitting in a room full of kids who were focused on getting their licenses and finding a date for the school dance. Attending classes and keeping up with my assignments would be tough enough even without the extra social challenges. Plus, my local school district does not recognize adult learners so I would be required to go through the adult learning center.

Then I heard about a new program. Knowing that I needed to try something new that could help change my life, I called and enrolled as a second-semester junior at Insight School of Kansas, an online public school.

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Although I was optimistic, I was nervous about balancing school with work and my family. But as I progressed through the program, the online classes and flexible timelines allowed me to make it all work. Last fall, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how I was going to take care of my mother and keep up with my schoolwork.  Yet, Insight School doesn’t penalize adult learners for taking time off as long as the work is done by the end of the term. With only traditional options, I never would have been able to take care of my mother, attend to my family and stay on track to get my degree.

“I was nervous about balancing school with work and my family.”

During my time at Insight, I also became friends with my other classmates and found that my teachers really cared about my personal and academic growth. During my first time in high school, my pre-algebra teacher told me I would never get it and for years I believed him. At Insight, math became one of my favorite subjects and Mrs. Coker, my teacher, became a mentor to me. Who could have ever guessed that all these years later I would come to pass algebra and actually enjoy math!

Sometimes, I still can’t believe that I have my degree. It is all mine, I earned it, and no one can take it away. When I was in my darkest moments, I often felt like I had nothing real that could allow me to be independent or successful. Now my education has changed my life forever, and I can’t wait to help support other women on that journey. With my new degree, I hope that I can become an advocate for women struggling with domestic abuse.

My grandparents weren’t there to see me graduate, but the rest of my family, including my proud, backpack-promoting grandson, was. It was a day I will remember forever and the end of a journey that changed my life. I only hope that my story encourages others to take advantage of the same opportunities and that soon there will be more proud, backpack-wearing, 40-something recent high school graduates out there in the world.

This story about adult high-school students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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