The Long Island City Queens Library branch was still closed last Friday morning when the 46 graduates began zipping up their gowns and placing their caps on their heads — careful not to ruin their hair.
The young men and women acted the way most graduates do as they prepare for the pomp and circumstance: jittery, excited and ready to get it over with.
“I’ve waited a year to get this,” said. “I finished in 2013 and had to wait until now to finally get the certificate.”
Inside the room where the ceremony was held, parents, grandparents and friends simmered with anticipation.
It was like so many of the other graduations going on in the months of May and June — the flashing cameras, beautiful dresses and dapper ties — but instead of 17-year-olds, these graduates were older, in some cases much older.
The Queens Library offers the rare opportunity for people to get their General Education Development diploma.
There are Adult Learning Centers at the Long Island City, Flushing, Jamaica and Peninsula branches. Each offers, on top of GED exam prep, ESL classes and computer classes, as well as reading and writing for all levels.
Some of the participants used to be enrolled in high school but prioritized everything except their schoolwork at the time, while others, new to the country, could barely speak the language.
Jasmin Hu, from Rego Park, escaped China in 2010 with her infant daughter and asked for asylum. While waiting for the State Department to grant her request, she began attending classes at the Flushing branch’s Adult Learning Center.
“I could not have done it without the Adult Learning Center,” Hu said, choking back tears before finally giving in to her emotions for a moment. She composed herself but her voice still cracked. “I feel like they are my family.”
Hu began studying at Queensborough Community College this spring to become an acupuncturist and she and her now 5-year-old daughter are doing well.
“I have a long way to go but I believe my dream will come true,” she said, barely getting the words out.
Hu’s words, and the ceremony in general, was an emotional experience for many of the graduates — almost all black, Hispanic or Asian — and their families.
“The journey is not going to be easy,” Pascal Foli, a teacher at the Long Island City branch, said. “You need to have determination to overcome the obstacles that come your way.”
Foli’s words were nothing that hundreds of graduation speakers before him had not said and yet, they seemed so much more relevant in a room full of people who worked every day, went to school, and in some cases, raised children and learned a new language.
“Patientia vincit omnia. Perseverance conquers everything,” he said. “This is not an end, it’s a means to an end. This life is a school and problems are part of the curriculum. Don’t forget those who are struggling, be sympathetic and be tolerant of the strong and the weak.”
As graduates were called one by one to accept a simple piece of paper, meant to represent the hard work and studying the students had put in, a sense of relief and pride seemed to cross all of their faces. They were graduates and now they had the diploma to prove it.
What’s next for the graduates varies. Some are going on to community colleges and trade schools, while others are aiming to go to four-year universities. Still others are unsure what the next step is.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do now,” Oscar Ruiz-Santos, a Fresh Meadows resident, said. “I had been focused on this, and now that it’s here, I guess I got a lot of thinking to do.”
But for at least that day, Hu, Ruiz-Santos and all the other graduates didn’t have to worry about the future, only be mindful of the present.
“I call on you to reflect,” Foli said, concluding his speech with, “Think of the best, hope for the best and expect the best.”