In May, Blanca de Jesus Ruiz Lopez enjoyed an opportunity most parents look forward to for years — watching her daughter, Astrid Torres, walk across the stage to receive her high school diploma.
“I was almost crying when I saw her on the stage,” Ruiz said of the Johnson High School graduation at Free Chapel. “I am very proud of her because she’s a very strong kid.”
On Saturday morning, the tables were turned as Torres became the proud family member in the audience watching her mother receive her GED in a small ceremony at the Nesbitt Academic Building on the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus.
“I’m really proud of her because she’s always pushed me to be the best that I can be and to work hard on school,” Torres said of her mother. “While I was in school through my senior year, I saw her struggling and taking eight hours or more of her day to sit down and do all of her work. She wouldn’t go out. She would sometimes even forget to eat in order to finish all of her work.”
Ruiz Lopez earned her GED through the High School Equivalency Program at UNG. Christian Bello, director of Migrant Programs and Services at UNG, said the program is starting its second year at UNG and offers classes in both Spanish and/or English, free textbooks and materials, free GED testing, flexible class schedules, academic and career counseling and financial assistance based on need. He said Ruiz qualified for the program because of her employment a local hatchery.
Ruiz Lopez said she completed the work in about four months, passing all her tests in March as her daughter was finishing up her senior year.
“I wanted better opportunities, and also I want to come to university and do an associate or something else,” Ruiz Lopez said. “I want my kids to be proud of me. I know that education is very important for everybody.”
The road has to graduation has not been an easy one for mother or daughter who came to the United States from Honduras in 2002 when Torres was just 3 years old. Torres was a sixth-grader in 2011 when she was diagnosed with a heart ailment that required heart surgery to replace a mitral valve.
“In a week, she went back to school again,” said Ruiz Lopez. “Her cardiologist said she can stay one more month at home, but she didn’t want to stay. She wanted to go back to school. She is a good student.”
Torres had surgery to replace the mitral valve with a tissue valve that would require fewer restrictions on her activity, but will also have to be replaced again in about two years.
“The valve they put in was only temporary,” Torres said. “They gave me the option of mechanical valve, but I would have had to take some blood thinners and I would have been restricted from a lot of things. Since I got the tissue valve, I am able to live my life without having to worry about a lot of things.”
The freedom in activity allowed her to participate in several clubs while at Johnson including the National Honor Society, Beta Club, Latino Knights of Service and the Spanish Honor Society.
With their high school requirements behind them, both mother and daughter are looking ahead to continuing their education at UNG.
Torres is enrolling at UNG through its College Assistance Migrant Program. Bello said the program offers opportunities for UNG students including use of a laptop for the first year, admissions and financial aid assistance, academic, career and personal coaching, peer mentoring, instructional support and tutoring, workshops and cultural activities.
Torres wants to go to nursing school and become a pediatric or neonatal nurse in a children’s hospital, something she was inspired to do while being treated for the valve replacement.
“After my surgery, I fell in love because all the nurses were so sweet and they were always coming in and making sure I was comfortable and just felt good,” she said. “I don’t know if I want to do pediatric or neonatal, but I do know that I do want kids.”
Ruiz Lopez expects to be a little behind her daughter at UNG.
“I am probably going in a year,” she said. “I want to do something in health or fitness because I love to exercise. I used to be a Zumba instructor.”
Both said they are grateful for opportunities available in their adopted country.
“We love this country a lot,” Ruiz Lopez said. “You can be whoever you want to be here if you are willing to do the job. There’s a lot of opportunities.”