[SE Programs] Keep Going: Jennifer's Story

Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Jennifer Gougeon, one of the first graduates at Polk State Lakeland Gateway to College

Gateway to College is celebrating commencement season by sharing student success stories. Each week, we'll share stories from a different region of the US, and this week we focus on the South and Southeast. Celebrate with us, and check out our Facebook for more. 

Originally published Tuesday, June 3, 2014 by Polk Newsroom, abridged by Roxanne Myslewski of Gateway to College National Network.

The paths they took to get there were anything but typical, but in the end, Polk State Lakeland Gateway to College High School’s first graduating class in 2014 had all the traditional hallmarks of commencement.

Pomp and Circumstance. A reading of Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go. Teary-eyed parents. Tassels moved from right to left.

The students took detours along the way to graduation. Some doubted they’d ever reach the stage. But they made it, and their mentors, parents, teachers, and Gateway program celebrated them.

Last spring, nine graduates, who themselves had once dropped out of high school entirely, straightened their caps and smoothed their gowns.

Jennifer Gougeon readied her graduation speech.

At 21, high school graduation had been a long time coming for Gougeon, an aspiring small-business owner who raises service dogs.

She stopped attending her traditional high school years ago, just before she would have become a junior. She attended two online-based charter schools, both of which closed before she could graduate. Her diploma, even though she’d spent years working to earn it, seemed to be slipping farther out of reach. She was just months from her 21st birthday, when she’d be too old to attend most schools.

That’s when she heard about Gateway.

In a conference room prior to the ceremony, where her classmates gathered to don their caps and gowns, Gougeon was still having trouble comprehending the magnitude of the event.

“My family has been making a big deal about it all day,” said Gougeon, an only child who was expecting more than a dozen family and friends from all over the state to attend the ceremony.

“They've been joking around, telling me how many years they've been waiting for this. I've been getting cards in the mail. It’s a really big deal.”

When the auditorium doors opened, Gougeon marched carefully and deliberately with her classmates. She exhaled noticeably, no doubt reminding herself that she could do what she had to. She’d already proven she could do anything.

The program began. Gateway to College Director Sallie Brisbane offered her welcome and congratulations.

Then Gougeon rose and made her way to the stage. When she took the mic, she was completely present—strong and confident.

She and her classmates had defied odds, stereotypes and statistics, she said. The Gateway faculty and staff had kept them going, even when giving up was so tempting.

“You called our cellphones, asking how our classes were going and this question — ‘where are you?’” Gougeon said.

“Gateway saw in us what others couldn't. You saw in us what we could be”

Gougeon ended her speech to rousing applause and returned to her seat. The ceremony ended with diplomas, hugs and refreshments, but also with the knowledge that Gougeon — like her classmates — would never be the same.

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