Dressed in a black cap and gown, Peace Asamoah, 38, tilted the microphone and confidently gazed into the crowd in the George Howard Building's Banneker Room. Standing beside her were three other students, ages 24 to 55, dressed in identical graduation attire and also receiving their high school diplomas.
In her West African accent, Asamoah seemed to speak for all of the students in the room.
"A big thank you to all of the staff," she said, glancing around at the instructors and tutors present at Thursday night's ceremony sponsored by Howard County Library's Project Literacy.
"I tried to get this before, and it was not a success," said the native of Ghana, referring to her diploma. "But I persevered, and my teachers encouraged me in so many ways. God will bless them really well."
The graduation was one part of the multitiered annual event that followed many hours of hard work by students of the adult literacy program, a free service in its 20th year. Students must live or work in the county, be 16 or older, have less than a high school education and not be enrolled in a public school.
Also honored Thursday were four students from China and one from Bangladesh who received their U.S. citizenship, 56 students for academic achievement, and 56 students for outstanding attendance. All 16 literacy program volunteers were recognized, as well. Three of the seven high school graduates, who came from Brazil, China, France, Ghana and the United States, did not attend.
A number of honorees received more than one award, including Xiu Ying Yu and new citizen Xue Qing Zhen, who sat together and excitedly took turns snapping photos of each other with the same camera. "We are good friends," Xue said, as the pair collected the certificates and presents bestowed on them.
Leading off the evening, the high school graduates processed up an aisle to the traditional "Pomp and Circumstance" as performed by the Marriott's Ridge Brass Quintet. Handing out the diplomas was last on the agenda.
"You could just feel the love in this room tonight," new graduate Jane Longo, 44, said afterward. A bartender since quitting school when her parents divorced, she said earning her diploma was difficult after 27 years. "But I just poured my heart and soul into it," she said, "and tonight, I was just so choked up to be here."
Columbia resident Ann Davis, 55, said getting her diploma had been her goal for a long time and that the graduation ceremony was "a very big moment for me."
Davis said earlier that she dropped out of school to take care of her nine younger brothers and sisters. Two older siblings had graduated, she said, but her parents wanted her help at home. Now she is a homemaker and takes care of her grandchildren.
Asamoah had a practical reason for wanting her diploma. She said she had never gotten around to completing graduation requirements since coming to the United States in 1999, but now she wants to go to college. She is a nursing assistant at Sunrise Senior Living in Columbia and plans to get a nursing degree.
Increasing the potential for job success is one of the top reasons for the existence of Project Literacy, along with breaking the language barrier, said Valerie J. Gross, county library director.
Gross spoke short phrases of welcome in three languages, adding that the students in the program speak 18 languages. Library enrollment statistics show that more than half of the students are Spanish-speaking adults who have children in the county's school system, and 92 percent of students are foreign-born, hailing from 38 countries.
County Executive Ken Ulman said he knew how hard it was to learn a language, "since I barely got through high school Spanish," and he praised the students' commitment to learning.
Among those recognized for making educational gains was Peidi Wang, a 72-year-old Chinese woman who has faithfully attended classes for two years, said Emma Ostendorp, adult literacy specialist and Project Literacy manager. She added that Peidi, who began as a low beginning reader and has progressed to a high beginning level, plans to continue in the program.
In Howard County, about 250 students have been helped annually during the past several years and 3,000 have been served since 1987, according to Project Literacy. Of that number, 120 have received high school diplomas and more than 100 have become American citizens.
The number of adults being reached through adult literacy programs is a fraction of those in need, said John LeMaster, adult education and literacy services section chief of the State Department of Education.
While 38,000 adults were served statewide in 2006, he said, 1 million Maryland residents have been identified as being in need of educational services. Howard County's program receives grants from the state and federal departments of education and from Maryland Literacy Works.
Ostendorp, who has worked for the library for six years and managed the program for 18 months, said she "feels very bad" that funding problems force the library to delay service in some cases. There are 35 names on a waiting list, she said, and some people have been waiting for as long as six months.
"From the get-go, we tell them about this possibility and that we also must take the most needy first," she said. Some requests for assistance are being filled through coursework at Howard Community College, as well.
"Today, we serve more people, and they come from a larger cross-section of the global community," Ostendorp told the gathering of about 150. "But our core mission remains the same: to help our students overcome all odds to achieve their dreams."
Ostendorp was singled out for her leadership and commitment by tutor Eudora Barnes, on behalf of the program's 22 staff members and 16 volunteers. Barnes, who fled Liberia with her husband, Roland, during the civil war there 20 years ago, said she understands these students' quest for knowledge and is "so very proud" to be a part of the county's adult literacy effort.
"These are all faithful teachers and volunteer tutors committed to the cause," said Ostendorp, turning the spotlight back on the staff.
And as Longo told the crowd after receiving her framed diploma, "The teachers are the ones who deserve awards. None of us would be here tonight without them."