Lives with GEDs buck stereotypes

Tim Skillern
The Lookout

Among the quirkier, but probably meaningless, details in the story of Edward Snowden—the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked U.S. government spy secrets, abandoned his girlfriend in Hawaii, bolted for Hong Kong and has since holed up in Moscow—is this figure: $120,000.

One-hundred-and-twenty grand is what the 29-year-old high school dropout earned while working for Booz Allen Hamilton, an NSA contractor. Before a brief stint in the U.S. Army and several government jobs, Snowden earned his GED, which raises this question: How far can one go in life with a GED? Yahoo News asked readers for their stories of earning a General Educational Development diploma, and while none boasted as sexy an existence as a fugitive with a pole-dancing girlfriend and a six-figure salary, their insights and stories say much about how GEDs can alter a life.

A lesson learned late: School first, fun later

Todd Jacondino dropped out of Thomas Edison High School in Jamaica, Queens, when he was 16.

“Was it a mistake?” he asks. “Absolutely.”

After Jacondino skipped the first day of 10th grade, his father offered him a choice: Get back to class or find a job. Jacondino opted for the latter, and he secured a gig as a forklift operator at a nearby school-supply warehouse. He made $10 an hour.

Two years later, after moving with his parents to the Poconos in Pennsylvania, he nailed the GED exams. But the litany of unfulfilling jobs began: minimum wage at a local bakery; a “dreadful” $7.15-an-hour job at a warehouse in Mount Pocono that he stuck to for four years; and a truck-driving job in 1994 in Nazareth, Pa., for $12.75. A theme developed: “I started to hate the job,” he says.

In 2000, he worked as a computer tech at a larger pharmaceutical company, starting at $40,000. After seven years, however, he lost his job when the company decided employees needed a bachelor’s degree.

In Jacondino’s words:

So, now it's 2013, and I'm 40 years old. I am a transportation manager, making $60,000 a year and I hate it. Long hours, the phone constantly rings, there are very few days off, really. I am on call 24/7 and that phone never stops ringing. Vacation is the only break.

If I had the choice to do it over, I would in a heartbeat. I would have stayed in school and got good grades, and gone to college to at least get a bachelor's degree. Education is the key to success. It's a global economy, and there are fewer and fewer opportunities for Americans as it is.

Having fun and hanging out with friends is great, but it is only temporary happiness. Friends will come and go through out your life; stay in school and focus on education if you want to succeed.

Can you make it with a GED? Sure, you can. But your choices will be limited and few and far in between.

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Cliché but true: Better late than never

Hiedi Seelke left her inner-city Los Angeles high school in 1995 because the teachers were merely baby sitters. Of the roughly 35 kids in each of her classes, five or six wanted to learn.

“It was like herding cats,” Seelke says. “I felt lost and out of place, like I had no voice.”

She failed her freshman and sophomore years—“my folks cared not if I quit,” she adds—and the school didn’t notice her absence for six months until she didn’t show up for summer school.

Then, for over a decade and a half, she worked what she calls “endless jobs,” mostly in fast food and retail. She had two kids with her husband, who attended trade school and worked as a line cook and then a manager at a restaurant. When her children neared middle school, Seelke looked back at her missed opportunity in high school with sadness and regret. Tired of drifting, she says, she enrolled in GED classes and studied hard. On Aug. 15, 2012, she passed all five tests on the first try.

In Seelke’s words:

I felt really proud of myself. My family is really proud of me, too, that I have my GED. It makes no difference to them if I have a high school diploma or a GED. I corrected a mistake that should have been fixed years ago. My husband and kids were really supportive and helped me study.

After I graduated, the newfound self-esteem helped me land a job here in Olympia, Wash., as a home-care aide. At $11.07 an hour, it pays more than my other minimum-wage jobs. I care for five clients, and what's more, this career is opening doors for me. I hated working as a nurse's aide in a nursing home, but working one-on-one with someone as a home-care aide is much more rewarding.

Getting my GED has even encouraged me to further my education. The agency I work for has awarded me a scholarship to earn my certificate in practical nursing and pay for the state licensing exam. This certificate will allow me to work as a licensed practical nurse and get better pay.

If I could have done things differently, I would have. Mainly, I wouldn't have waited this long to go back to school. But I really enjoy what I do, and my GED is helping me have a brighter future.

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Demanding, overwhelming childhood leads to nontraditional route

Michelle Bliss isn’t a prostitute, despite her parents’ chiding she could’ve turned out that way.

As a high school junior in Salt Lake City, Bliss also took community college courses in the afternoon and then worked at a McDonald’s at night and on weekends, often until 2 a.m. “I had very little support from my typical Mormon family other than being teased that if I didn't study or work hard, I would end up being a hooker,” she says. Her mother, a bounty hunter who tracked down deadbeat dads for the state of Utah, cautioned Bliss with stories about teenage moms and welfare babies.

At 16, while riding the bus one day, she had an epiphany tinged with apprehension: She pictured her fellow passengers arriving home in time to catch “Jeopardy” on TV; fearing she’d have a life that mundane gave her panic attacks. “I began to feel I would be trapped inside of that bus for the rest of my life,” she said. Bliss felt overwhelmed, not knowing if she should focus all her efforts on her friends, family, church or studies.

Bliss dropped out of school at 17 and earned a GED certificate. She then bought a one-way bus ticket to San Francisco. She spent the next decade deprogramming herself, she says. She made nontraditional choices along the way, she admits, but they were the right choices for her.

In Bliss’ words:

I'm now in my 30's and living in the NYC area where I'm working toward a doctorate while running my own business-development company. The income of my business depends highly on the success of other businesses, most of which require a great deal of hands-on effort to beat the odds of being "just" another small business that fails in its first five years. I work closely with other businesses on startup, growth and strategy. I'm my own boss.

I now know that thinking for one's self is more important than fitting into the pre-fabricated molds that society or family puts people in. The individuals brave enough to break free from traditional expectations will go on to make positive changes in life and in business.

Those with GEDs can be a valuable resource for companies because they're not afraid to swim against the tide and take risks. Innovation is needed and if calling it quits on high school provides a better path to income and life opportunities, then I say go for it! You can always count on the fact that being a success with a GED is better than being an unsuccessful statistic waiting around in the welfare line.

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