Adult Education classes of 2020 and 2021 graduate at Parchment Valley Conference Center

Suzette Lowe

As the 2020 and 2021 graduates of the Adult Education program marched into the ceremony to the “pomp and circumstance,” there was an obvious sense of pride and accomplishment.

The 16 graduates (Kalob Farrell not pictured individually) were cheered on by their families and friends as they took their seats at the Parchment Valley Conference Center in anticipation of being recognized for achieving a major goal in each of their lives.

The journey for every graduate was unique. For Cyndall Stephenson, Lauren Nichols and best friends Hunter Lafferty and Mickey Casto, it boiled down to the traditional high school setting not being a fit.

Stephenson, now 28, said she had been trying to make the decision to get her high school equivalency certificate for a long time.

“I was just never comfortable when I went in to inquire,” she said. “My now ex-boyfriend was getting his and we kept talking about it for me. High school had been difficult because I was often ill and my mom passed away.”

The actual decision to move forward was made in an unusual way.

“I was kind of ambushed,” Stephenson said with a laugh. “I was taking him to classes, and he basically locked me out of the car and forced me to talk to Carla Mullins. That ‘intervention’ was the best thing that ever happened. My goal now is to become a phlebotomist, then on to nursing.”

Lafferty and Casto say the conventional high school experience was not a good one for them. Both dealt with some family issues, along with mental and emotional health challenges that did not fit in well with school.

When he was in middle school, Casto said he was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, coupled with attention deficit disorder.

“I had no motivation,” he said. “I passed everything in ninth grade but failed every year after that. I don’t mean to put down anyone, but honestly there was no teacher or principal that reached out to help me.”

He wanted to drop out when he was 16 and just try to get a job somewhere, but his best friend encouraged him to try for his equivalency.

“I started in November 2020,” he said. “But I had transportation issues and didn’t really have the support of my family. So, it took me a little longer than I thought but now I’m graduating.”

For Lafferty, his struggles also lasted through high school. Strict deadlines were part of the issue.

“It just sort of took the life right out of me,” he said. “I did try virtual school this year and it started out pretty well. But if you get behind a little, you just get lost. And that’s what happened to me.”

Following his friend’s example, he took the pre-tests required in May 2021, passed those and conquered the ‘big test’ to enable him to graduate.

Besides their friendship, both young men have another thing in common. Their goal is to attend culinary school.

While Lafferty will work for a couple of years and then pursue his dream of majoring in culinary arts and minoring in music, Lafferty has been accepted into a private culinary school in Elkins.

Both credit two teachers with helping them achieve this milestone in their lives.

“Clarence Canterbury was a great culinary teacher at Vo-Tech,” said Casto. “He would give us all these weird tips to make cooking and baking go easier. He pushed us but only to make us better.”

They say the same for their adult education teacher.

“Carla is amazing,” Lafferty said. “She’s very encouraging while she was pushing me to get everything done so I could graduate.”

Casto simply said, “She’s uplifting.”

For soft-spoken 19-year-old Lauren Nichols, her inspiration was her father and Mullins.

“My dad understood the issues I was dealing with in high school,” she said. “My mom passed away when I was really young, and he raised me as a single dad. He had to get his GED too and he knew it was okay for me to go that direction as well.”

Nichols said she drifted in high school and was ‘just being a teenager, doing the things teenagers do.’ But it was always her intent to graduate.

Her father, Tony Nichols, was there to cheer on her as she received her certificate.

“I see a lot of potential in my daughter,” he said. “She wants to be a graphic designer and she’s very talented, but she’s also good with animals. I’m just a proud dad no matter what she does.”

The new graduate credits Mullins for support and guidance.

“She didn’t push too hard, but she helped me overcome some obstacles like math,” Nichols said. “I saw her as my partner and now my good friend.”

In her commencement address to her students, Mullins shared that the first thing she tells them is the past is behind them.

“I’m not here to judge you,” she said. “This is the start of a new life for you. Each of you has a story but all of you are brave to have made the determination to succeed.”

Mullins said the most impressive aspect of these students was their ability to never give up. Their education was impacted by the health pandemic. There were many obstacles placed in their path with family obligations, jobs and other issues.

“One of my students worked the night shift and would immediately after come to class,” she said. “I still don’t know how he did that, but he did. That was determination right there.”

Because there was no in-person graduation ceremony last year, students from both 2020 and 2021 were honored at the ceremony.

Mullins said she always reads “Attitude” by Charles Swindoll at graduation.

It says in part, that attitude is “more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we embrace for that day.”