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“It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t impossible either.” Latino Academy celebrates largest graduation to date

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For the first time in nearly three years, the Latino Academy of Workforce Development held its GED and CDL graduation ceremony in person on Saturday at the Kasieta Center in the Badger Prairie Needs Network building in Verona.

It was the largest graduating class to date, as everyone who earned their general equivalency diploma (GED) or commercial driver license (CDL) in 2020 and 2021 were also invited to participate. In all, 51 graduates were honored.

The Latino Academy is a nonprofit organization that provides linguistically and culturally relevant education and job training throughout south-central Wisconsin.

“Graduates, today marks a new beginning for all of you,” said Stephanie Díaz de León, Madison365’s director of outreach and engagement, who served as MC of the event. “We are here to celebrate your courage, your resilience and your thriving to celebrate your new beginning. El día de hoy marca un nuevo comienzo para todos ustedes. Estamos aquí para celebrar su coraje, su resistencia y su crecimiento; para celebrar el nuevo comienzo de cada uno de ustedes. Estamos aquí para celebrar su coraje, su resistencia y su crecimiento; para celebrar el nuevo comienzo de cada uno de ustedes.”

Latino Academy graduates wait to enter at the 2022 graduation ceremony Saturday. Photo by Robert Chappell.

Latino Academy Executive Director Baltazar de Anda Santana recognized the unique challenges faced by students working through the pandemic.

“We all know the terrible atrocities COVID has done to our communities. There is no reason to go there,” he said. “Graduates, what’s important to mention is through COVID, you rose to the challenge. You gave us hope. Your goal was shaken but yet you use these obstacles to rise. You have told us that even in the face of adversity, we can try.”

Graduate Elizabeth Petrus said she came to the United States in 2007 with the dream of becoming the first in her family to achieve an education. She set aside that dream to get married and start a family, but picked it up again in 2019, working through the pandemic to get it done.

“That dream I had 14 years ago has finally come true. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t impossible either,” she told her fellow graduates and families. “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”

Similarly, graduate Zulma Limas, 50, recounted the many barriers she faced – the loss of her mother, her own cancer diagnosis, as well as the familiar day-to-day trials of being a working mom, all while needing just one final class to finish the GED.

“I started telling my family and staff from the Latino Academy I just could not do this. They didn’t give up on me and motivated me to keep going. I will always be thankful for that,” she said. “I want to tell our community out there that everything is possible if you dedicate time to yourself and keep motivating yourself.”

It was the Latino Academy’s first graduation ceremony since establishing itself as an independent nonprofit organization. For its first ten years, it operated as a program of the Vera Court Neighborhood Center.