Meet the oldest graduate in the Catholic Charities' GED program this year. She's 78 years old.

Published by
Tulsa World

2017-05-24 ne-gedgraduationim

Standing on the auditorium stage with her diploma in hand, 78-year-old Maria Castro felt like a queen.

A lifetime of sacrifice and limitations prevented her from pursuing the school experience, but the newly minted American persevered.

Castro and 62 other students from Catholic Charities’ education program celebrated their “graduation from high school” Tuesday evening at the Cascia Hall Performing Arts Center, 2520 S. Yorktown Ave.

Castro moved from Dallas to Tulsa six years ago after emigrating from Mexico and obtained U.S. citizenship in December. She always dreamed of earning a basic education but never had the means to do so, as standard GED tests were English-only. But then she discovered a new initiative that offers testing in Spanish, and she jumped right in.

“A lot of people my age say, ‘Well I’m already older. I don’t need to study this,’” Castro told the Tulsa World through a translator. “But it’s beautiful to be able to learn and get a better understanding.”

Since starting about five years ago, the program has allowed Spanish-speakers better access to GED certificates and also offers high school equivalency preparation courses in Tulsa, Bartlesville and Muskogee. The youngest graduate at Tuesday’s ceremony was 16, while Castro was the oldest. They hailed from nine cities, including two from Kansas. All but three are native Spanish-speakers.

Castro joined the organization’s middle school for adults program in 2013 and completed that within a year. She started the GED program in 2014. She failed the math portion of the exam four times but passed it on the fifth.

“That was my dream, my goal,” she said.

Her next goal is to learn English as a second language.

Her teacher, Giani Kantor, said Castro’s unwavering drive and self-determination propelled her to succeed, and she believes the woman can accomplish whatever she sets her mind to.

“She’s just a prime example of what it means to never give up on your dreams,” Kantor said. “She has worked so hard, and this is something she has always wanted to do for herself and for her kids.”

Catholic Charities, the only agency in eastern Oklahoma approved by the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees, is one of two centers in the area teaching high school equivalency classes in Spanish. Kantor, who is the organization’s education coordinator, said the program’s enrollment has steadily grown due to student success and dedication from teachers.

Tuesday’s graduation ceremony was the first held by Catholic Charities. Previously, the graduates would walk alongside those in the Union Public Schools adult education program, but a recent spike in students prompted the organization to start its own ceremony. The 2017 class doubled the size of last year’s, Kantor said.

Because Catholic Charities is primarily volunteer-based, Kantor said further expansion is difficult. She hopes to bring in more educators so they can reach more people.

A lot of immigrants come to the United States to find work and better support their families but lack the formal education needed for many jobs, Kantor said. With GED certificates, they have the same opportunities as a high school graduate. Many continue their schooling at Tulsa Community College.

“I think it’s so important to bring education to everyone,” Kantor said. “Education is such an important part of life and for the community to progress. I think it inspires other generations.

“They see that and start to think you can never be too old to go back to school. It’s never too late to go back to school. We’re supposed to be learning our whole lives. We’re not supposed to just stop at 18.”