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Excel Center delivers second class of graduates

By ROSS FLINT - rflint@shelbynews.com

Two years ago, Amy Cooper found out that the diploma she received for graduating from high school was not valid.

She learned that the curriculum from the school she attended was not state accredited and, as a result, she had spent her adult life believing she was a high school graduate when in fact, she was not.

In the summer of 2016, she received a flyer from the Excel Center. After showing it to her husband, she decided to pursue the opportunity.

On Thursday night, she and 16 of her classmates overcame life’s obstacles and received their diplomas.

Second chances were the theme of Thursday night’s Excel Center graduation ceremony at the Strand Theatre in downtown Shelbyville.

Cooper, who was the class valedictorian and earned magna cum laude distinction, referred to the “road less traveled” quote by Robert Frost during her speech.

“We all have a road less traveled, one that is unfamiliar, one that is out of our comfort zone,” she said. “As hard as this road may appear, it is well worth taking. It may be littered with barriers and things unpleasant, but in the end, traveling is what makes all the difference, and yields great beginnings.”

She credited her family and the Excel Center faculty for pushing her during her journey, which was challenged with illness and surgery.

“What could be better than a new beginning?” she said. “Being here at the Excel Center (in) Shelbyville has given us a brand new start to our lives. It has opened up doors and it will open up many more.”

Lisa Jones, who graduated cum laude, initially took online classes because she had a full-time job working 12-hour shifts. But knowing that not all of the classes were online, she eventually adjusted her schedule so she could take classes on campus.

“I didn’t think I would ever be standing on this stage receiving my diploma, but like all of you, I got lucky, I got luck to have a second chance at life,” she said during her speech.

She said her parents challenged her to not follow in their shoes.

“Even if we did take a wrong turn or two, or maybe even three, we finally realized that we had to grow up and take control,” she said. “Throughout my life, I have made many wrong turns. And you want to know something? Those wrong turns taught me about how difficult life can be, and they actually led me here tonight.”

She credited the single mothers who made sure to take care of their children while also finding time to take classes. And she credited fathers who took care of their families so that the mothers in the family could go back to school.

All of Thursday’s graduates had one question they never thought they would be able to answer, she said: What will they do after graduating from high school?

“Well, here is our chance to answer it,” she said. “My answer is, when I grow up and I finish high school, I want to be the greatest role model for my children. I want them to know that if they don’t get it right the first time, they have a second chance to correct themselves.

“We all have a chance to walk out of here being better parents, better citizens and better mentors,” she said. “We get to be better for us. We have proven our doubters wrong, and it all started with just a little hint of belief in ourselves, a belief that has grown to make it possible to go forward.”

She called her journey at the Excel Center one of “the best challenges and most exceptional experiences I have ever had.”

“My second chance would have never happened if I hadn’t taken that first step forward by enrolling in school,” she said. “You can’t get anywhere if you don’t take that first step. Everything requires that initial step, and every one of us on this stage took it when we decided we wanted better, and that we wanted a life that would prevent our children from struggling as much as we have.”

Mayor Tom DeBaun also spoke and he, too, spoke about taking that first step.

“You have the courage to take that step,” he said. “You have to have the support system to feel confident to take that step.”

The other graduate to speak, Ashley Manner, who also graduated cum laude, became emotional while talking about the support she received from family and staff members.

“I would like to thank my mom, who’s no longer with us, for watching over me and helping me through all of this,” she said. “I did this for you. You’ve always been my biggest encouragement.”

DeBaun said the second graduating class from the Excel Center continues to chip away from the 5,000 Shelby County residents without high school diplomas.

“As mayor, I’d like to say today Shelbyville is a little brighter after what you’ve accomplished tonight,” he said.

Magner noted the graduates all came from different backgrounds but overcame their own obstacles to earn diplomas.

“This was a challenge that I thought I would never overcome,” she said. “But I can proudly say tonight that I have done it. It was a rough ride, but I would do it all over again.”