Tammy Morowski wears her achievement next to her sleeve. A tattoo on her right forearm displays "2010," the year she earned her GED, or high school equivalency degree.
"It's that important to me," she said. "If it wasn't, I wouldn't put it on my body."
Morowski, along with other students who completed Western Nevada College's adult education programs, shared their stories with Brenda Dann-Messier, assistant U.S. secretary for vocational and adult education, who visited the campus Tuesday.
"I'm here to listen and learn," she told a group of students and staff, including college president Carol Lucey. "It's a really great way for us to find out what's going on on the ground. What are you doing here that I can lift up, highlight and spread all over the country."
The visit is part of the U.S. Department of Education's third annual back-to-school bus tour, which will bring U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to Reno today, where he and community leaders will focus on the cost of and access to higher education.
Dann-Messier toured the college's Adult Literacy and Language department, focusing on innovative techniques for teaching language and literacy skills.
Teri Zutter, director of the department, outlined the five-week GED preparation class, known as GED Boot Camp. She also explained the English-as-a-Second-Language Transitions course, which helps students use their skills to move on to higher education.
"I have a passion for adult education," Zutter said. "Education is transformative."
Morowski shared her own transformation. When her husband went to prison on a drunken driving offense more than two years ago, she said she was left with no way to support herself.
After cleaning houses for a while, she decided she wanted something better.
She enrolled in the college's GED Boot Camp, but struggled with insecurities.
"I was too scared to ask any questions," she said. "I felt like everyone in the class was smarter than me."
She said the support of the teachers and staff helped her gain the confidence to pass the test and is now in her second year of studies at Western Nevada College.
"I am extremely proud of where I am today," she said. "I owe so much of it to the staff. They changed my life."
Leyco Rivas, who moved to the United States from Nicaragua five years ago, earned her GED, received her citizenship and enrolled in college classes within the past 18 months. She plans to earn her master's degree from the University of Nevada, Reno.
"I am proud because five years ago, I didn't speak English at all," she said. "Now the situation is different. This program helped me to improve my education."
Rigo Estrada told of a hard life growing up in Southern California.
"I didn't go to school because I needed to survive," he said.
At 14, he was arrested the first time. By 15, he was fighting a possible 16-year sentence for gang-related crimes.
Although he'd made several attempts at earning his GED, he said, he wasn't successful until he joined the program at WNC.
"Nobody in Southern California ever pushed me or believed in me like the people here," he said. "I've never accomplished anything in my life, so when I looked online and it said, 'Passed,' I just jumped up. It means so much.
"I can't picture myself a college student, but here I am a college student."
Dann-Messier congratulated students and staff on their work and assured them federal officials would continue to work on their behalf.
"The stars are aligned," she said. "This is really our time. This is our moment, and we've got to seize it."