Learning can be challenging and rewarding

We learn all through our lives, formally and informally, and it is rarely easy.

By Shana Friend

For the Mirror

Have you ever been afraid of trying something new? Sometimes we learn by choice and other times by necessity. As I have undertaken learning experiences as an adult, I have become more empathetic with my students. They, in turn, have inspired me by their dedication.

My GED students are more diverse than you might expect. I have 16-year-olds who weren’t a good fit for high school, 40-year-olds who want to move up at work and retirees who want the personal satisfaction of finishing their GED. My students have been blind, deaf, homeless, learning English, recovering from addiction or accidents, and usually very busy.

The diversity of my classroom is mirrored in the diversity of the college as a whole. With more than 70 percent students of color, Highline College is the most diverse higher education institution in the state. Of our 17,000 students each year, one-third are immigrants and refugees.

No matter why they come to my class or what their previous experiences have been, many students are nervous when they step in the door. I can relate to that because I have returned to school myself as an adult.

For example, after the birth of my first son, Highline hired me as a teaching assistant in a GED class. This was great! However, it meant teaching something I hadn’t even thought about for 10 years — math. So here I was in my late 20s, an immigrant, with a new husband, a new baby and a new job that required me to teach a subject I couldn’t really remember. If I was going to do this, I needed the support of the people around me, but I didn’t know many people.

I know that my students also may not have a strong support network, so I work to make my classroom a place where we can support each other. One young student confided that his parents wanted him to work and his friends wanted him to party, but he wanted to go back to school. His classmates and I made it a point to encourage him and help him reach his goals.

I was in my mid-30s when I decided to get my master’s degree in adult education. How was I going to juggle life and find time to study? One of my students was an inspiration to me. She was getting custody of her grandchildren, managing a household and running a PTA all while studying for her GED. She made a schedule and used all the available campus resources. Not only did this student get her GED, but she went on to earn an associate degree and then a bachelor’s degree. When I saw what she could accomplish, it encouraged me to keep going.

Many of my students have to juggle parenting and jobs as they go to school. I can relate to the feeling of being overwhelmed with life, but I also know that it is possible to proceed with your educational goals.

Since then, I have had to continually upgrade my math skills as the GED has upgraded its requirements. Despite past success, I was nervous last spring when I took a math class at Highline. The college-level classes move very quickly and, once again, I appreciated the dedication of my students who push through the fear. One very bright student had dropped out after one month of classes, and I couldn’t figure out why. When he came back two years later, he admitted to being afraid of failure. I was able to share my own fears at studying again. This student chose to become a class leader, push through the fear, earn his GED and enroll in college classes.

We learn all through our lives, formally and informally, and it is rarely easy. For me it has been challenging, but also fulfilling and rewarding. My students inspire me, my support system helps me and I am determined to continue learning. How about you?

Shana Friend teaches GED prep and English as a Second Language classes. She has a master’s degree in adult education and bachelor’s degrees in linguistics and English. Shana taught English in Canada and China before moving to the United States where she and her husband are raising two sons and several pets.