German Garduno led the commencement procession, and his first steps were a bit out of sync.

Who could blame him? The last time the 32-year-old Columbia resident from Mexico attended a graduation of any kind was when he completed ninth grade at age 15. Tuesday night, Garduno joined a half-dozen other adults who received high school diplomas via Project Literacy, a Howard County Library educational initiative.


Each took steps into uncharted territory that many adults take for granted — including no more worries about being denied a chance at jobs that require at least a high school diploma.

Project Literacy helped Garduno and the other graduates earn degrees as part of the National External Diploma Program, which awards diplomas to those who demonstrate through a screening process that they have earned high school-equivalent skills via life or work experience.

Tuesday's ceremony also honored participants who had received instruction in basic math, reading and writing skills.

Project Literacy is funded by sources including the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which issues the diplomas. Howard library officials said it's the state's only library system that receives grants from the agency for an adult basic-education initiative.

Garduno, a restaurant waiter and bartender, said he decided to pursue his high school degree after taking English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, classes at Howard Community College, and after a friend who had gained her diploma encouraged him to enroll.

Last Tuesday, he received his diploma in a ceremony at the library system's Charles E. Miller branch in Ellicott City while the Columbia Brass Quintet performed — and while family members and friends beamed and cellphone cameras flashed.

"I am hoping to keep studying to get my management degree at HCC," Garduno said. "It was a long process, but at the end of the day, it's worth it. I've been studying at the library for almost two years, preparing for my GED test, and I passed the test. It's a good feeling to have such a nice accomplishment."

Project Literacy began in 1987 as a way to provide free instruction in reading, writing and math to Howard County adults who had not received a high school diploma (or equivalent) and who were not enrolled in a formal education program. The program offers certificates for ESOL classes and tutoring.

Howard County Library officials said the initiative has taught more than 7,000 students — including more than 140 who have received high school diplomas. The program also offers tutoring for the U.S. citizenship test; more than 130 have used the program to become U.S. citizens. Students receive group or one-on-one tutoring.

Library adult literacy coordinator Emma Ostendorp said the program has been valuable in a state where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 450,000 adults lack a high school diploma. She said Project Literacy serves about 400 residents annually.

Since about 95 percent of students in the program are foreign-born, she said, English is among the more popular subjects offered.

Ostendorp said students often say they enroll in the program "because sometimes they run into situations at work where they are required to have higher literacy skills or they have problems managing day-to-day living — filling out a form at the doctor's office or going shopping or just to talk to the teachers at the school where their children attend."

Joining Garduno in receiving a diploma was Isabel Boosalis, 21, of Ellicott City, who said she stopped attending school in the ninth grade, opting instead to enter the workforce. She said she was following in the footsteps of other family members who hadn't finished school, but was concerned with what impression she was making on her younger brother.

"I wanted to show him that it's important to graduate," said Boosalis. "For myself, I wasn't satisfied with just a part-time [job]. I wanted to get something better that paid more. After seeing me work hard and graduate, my little brother started picking up in school."


Now Boosalis, a restaurant manager, said her career options are limitless. She hopes to attend college and is considering such fields as teaching and food service.

"It was a good accomplishment. I worked hard for it," she said. "I feel that it is a step out. I was a young teenager, and I didn't realize how important graduation was. Since I've done it, I feel accomplished and ready to going on.

The program is one of many educational initiatives offered by a library system that this month was named 2013 Library of the Year by Gale and Library Journal, a publisher of research and reference resources for libraries, schools and businesses.

"Education is key to the success and future of any person. This means that all of our participants in Project Literacy can improve their lives," said Valerie Gross, president and CEO of the library system. "It contributes directly to their future economic advancement and enhanced quality of life."