Priscilla Moler, left, gets emotional as she receives the Iota Alpha Chapter Phi Theta Kappa Scholarship from PTK President Paula Contois during GED graduation on Thursday, June 5.
ATHENS – “Everyone here has a story to tell,” the Rev. Bill Burton said, swinging his hand across the gathering of students seated just over his right shoulder.
The chapters of each of those individual stories – including Burton’s – were bound together in a triumphant celebration Thursday, June 5, during the Trinity Valley Community College General Educational Development graduation. Forty-five students – diverse in age, race and circumstance – received their diploma in a ceremony held in the Orval Pirtle Auditorium on the Athens campus.
Burton, who delivered the ceremony’s commencement speech, understands the circumstances of some of the students he addressed. He, himself, earned his GED after quitting high school to take care of his mother and join the U.S. Army. He went on to receive an associate degree from Henderson County Junior College (which would later become TVCC) and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Tyler.
He parlayed those academic successes into a career in personal business, politics and, eventually, the pulpit. The former Henderson County justice of the peace is now pastor of St. Thomas Chapel AME Church in Alto. He likened his life story and struggles to something his mother used to tell him about how crabs, when put together in a barrel, can never escape because they always reach out and pull each other down.
“But I was able to climb out of the barrel,” he said. “I don’t look like what I’ve been through because I climbed my way out. … I learned to overcome that mindset and found the key through education. I’m living proof that you can rise above your circumstances and make a difference in your community.”
The graduates also received encouragement from Sabrina Smith, a fellow TVCC GED graduate who has been the recipient of several scholarships and will graduate from college in August on the President’s List.
“This is a huge accomplishment,” Smith said. “Take this and make it the first of many accomplishments.”
In addition to the presentation of diplomas, three students received scholarships to continue their education at TVCC. Priscilla Moler was awarded the Iota Alpha Chapter Phi Theta Kappa Scholarship and two TVCC President’s Scholarships were awarded for students who achieved the highest scores on the GED test in 2013 and 2014 (two were awarded this year due to changes in the test that began in January). TVCC President Dr. Forgey awarded the 2013 scholarship to Daniel Gunderson, while Emilie Cannady received the 2014 scholarship.
Forgey encouraged each of the graduates to continue to pursue education as they embark on writing the next chapters of their lives.
“Some of you are thinking about continuing your education, but I don’t want you to think about it,” Forgey said. “I want you to do it.”