As Aliia Usenova stood in front of 106 of her classmates and hundreds of other people Wednesday evening, she began to tear up a bit as she began thanking people and telling them she loved them.
Usenova moved to Billings with her young son from her native country of Kyrgyzstan in August 2008 after marrying an American serviceman, not knowing a lick of English and with what amounted to an eighth-grade education.
Less than three years later, Usenova became one of 374 people in Billings to earn a general educational development (GED) diploma as part of the Adult Education Program’s 2010-2011 graduating class.
At Wednesday’s commencement ceremony, she was given the faculty award, presented each year to an exemplary student.
“I went back to school to learn the language, get new skills and earn a GED,” she told the crowd at the Lincoln Center Auditorium.
Students of all ages and from all walks of life graduated Wednesday in what Woody Jensen, director of adult education for Billings Public Schools, said was both the biggest class (374 graduates) and most people to attend graduation (107) he’s seen.
“Their path toward graduation has been filled with obstacles,” Jensen said. “... We as a faculty are very proud of the adult education students standing before us.”
Misty Law, 28, earned her GED from the program in 2008 after dropping out of Senior High during her freshman year in the late 1990s.
She is now studying to become a licensed practical nurse at Montana State University Billings College of Technology and hopes to get accepted to the program in the fall. She said her efforts set a good example for her three children and two stepchildren.
“I needed a career and I needed a job,” Law said. “I have kids and it’s something that we all need — an education.”
Law had her first child when she was 17 and said finishing her education took a back seat for years, but she eventually realized it was something she had to do.
“I have to do it myself if I want them to do it, too,” she said.
For Usenova, the journey was more of a new start. In the 18 months since she signed up for the program, she’s learned English, learned to drive and taken the GED exam and is now preparing for college with hopes of becoming “a nurse, a good nurse.”
She told the crowd Wednesday that with support, she’s taken a big step toward her goals.
“I want to use any opportunity that life’s given me, to work hard and to make the people that I love proud of me,” she said.