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An Ottawa woman says earning a high school diploma is a dream come true

An Ottawa woman says earning a high school diploma is a dream come true
An Ottawa woman says earning a high school diploma is a dream come true

Hala Najm had anticipated the few steps she had to take to walk across the stage and receive her high school diploma for years.

Not just the two years it took her to complete her course load; the 61-year-old says getting her degree is an idea she’s been committed to for decades, after coming to Canada from Lebanon at a young age in 1977.

“I always felt like there was a void in my life,” Najim told CBC Radio Ottawa Morning on Monday.

She came to Canada when she was 14, married young and had six children by the age of 24. She also soon became a grandmother.

‘I want to do something for myself’

The hairdresser, whose parents left home 25 years ago, says she wanted to start something for herself.

“Even though I have great children and… grandchildren, a great, great job that has allowed me to meet great, great people and live a good life – there was one thing missing: a high school diploma,” she said.

“This is time for me. I want to do something for myself.”

Through her education in Lebanon, Najm learned French but not English. Instead, she learned the language in Canada at the kitchen table next to her daughter.

“She was in Grade 1 and brought home homework. I couldn’t wait to learn to spell in English,” she said.

That daughter is now 46, Najm said.

Her journey began when she came into contact with OCDSB’s Continuing Education, located downtown on Albert Street.

After taking evening classes after work, Najm earned an Ontario high school diploma and will be fully recognized as a high school graduate. (The General Educational Development (GED) test is no longer offered in Canada.)

Although the prospect of becoming the eldest of her cohort was intimidating, Najm said she would have deeply regretted it if she had not gone for it. She also didn’t want to disappoint her children, who encouraged her to go back to school.

“It takes a tremendous amount of courage to apply for an adult high school program,” said Julia Bilenkis, dean of the school, who encouraged and helped Najm take on the challenge.

“It somehow takes more courage to go back to high school than it does to go to college or university or possibly get an apprenticeship,” Bilenkis said.

Mathematics proved to be Najm’s most difficult subject, but she eventually graduated with a student recognition award for her exceptional achievements.

‘Spark to learn’

She said she finished her last assignment after work, around 9 or 10 p.m., but she didn’t turn it in right away. She resisted the temptation until the next morning, when she read it over again to make sure she was happy with her work.

After she submitted it, she emailed Bilenkis saying she had officially graduated from high school.

“It’s the reason why guidance counselors and teachers join the profession that we practice,” Bilenkis said by phone earlier this week. “We want adults to succeed and students to succeed and reach their potential, achieve their goals and move forward.

“And Hala isn’t done yet,” she continued. “The spark for learning she always had is now like a low-burning fire.”

Najm was at work when Bilenkis called her to tell her she had won an award. Her customers applauded as she called her.

Najm called it a dream come true.

“I can’t believe it,” she said. “It really happened.”