At 58, MATC HSED Graduate Learned That She Could Learn

Milwaukee resident who dropped out of school in the seventh grade earning her high school equivalency diploma

Mark Feldmann,

January 02, 2023

GED/HSED Graduation

MILWAUKEE – Clareathea Wallace gave up on her education once. 

She wasn’t going to do it a second time.

Growing up on a hog farm in rural Georgia, Wallace did chores, helped watch her eight brothers and sisters and attended school.

“Back then I guess I didn’t know how to learn,” she said. “I had to take special classes because I was learning too slow for my age. I couldn’t get much help at home because my mom had nine kids, and I was the next to the oldest and had to help with the younger kids.” 

“I felt I couldn’t learn anyway. So in the seventh grade, I just quit trying and quit school,” she added. “Why stay in some place that I didn’t even feel a part of, especially when all the other kids made fun of me?”

Wallace probably would have stayed away from school forever, but then she discovered Milwaukee Area Technical College two years ago after she and her husband moved to Wisconsin. She decided to give school another chance and enrolled in MATC’s General Equivalency Development (GED)/High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED) classes.

Now 58 years old, Wallace received her HSED and served as the student speaker at her graduation ceremony on Tuesday, December 20 at MATC’s Cooley Auditorium.

Wallace was one of about 200 students receiving their GED or HSED diplomas at the Dec. 20 ceremony. 

See more photos from GED/HSED Graduation

“Each and every one of you has firsthand knowledge and experience about what it is like to balance your daily schedule from taking care of yourself, children, partners or parents/guardians and our pets,” said Patricia Torres Najera, Ph.D., MATC’s Executive Director of Community Education, Hispanic-Serving Initiatives and Strategic Engagement. “We hope your life-long learning does not stop here.” 

“My mother received her GED when she was 45. I decided if she could do it, even at 58, I could do it,” Wallace said. “Her journey brought something out in me to finish my schooling.”

Wallace received her HSED through MATC’s 5.09 HSED program, a competency-based option designed to be completed in one to two semesters. Students in the 5.09 program must demonstrate mastery of competencies identified by the Wisconsin Technical College System in communication, social studies, science, math, health, civics and employability, as well as six additional competencies added by MATC to prepare students for college or the workforce. 

Earning an HSED can help individuals improve their chances to find work, increase earnings and pursue additional education.

At first, MATC instructors didn’t think Wallace could complete her coursework. She has a big smile and an easy laugh, but she didn’t know her way around a computer very well.

“We didn't think it was going to happen for her,” said Holly Thielen, instructional chair of MATC’s HSED 5.09 program. “She would hunt and peck on the keyboard which took forever. She did not know her way around online at all. But she didn't care. She found a way anyway. She was so determined.”

“Through that determination and hard work, Wallace now types almost 40 words per minute and needs no assistance finding her way on the computer,” Thielen said.

“The instructors were so positive, so supportive and so helpful,” Wallace said. “They were always there for me. Any time I even thought about giving up they were there to encourage me.” 

Wallace, who rises at 3 a.m. each day to fix her coffee and read her Bible, attended in-person classes twice a week at MATC’s West Allis Campus and took others online. Sitting at a desk became harder after she was diagnosed with a bone disorder. “My body does what my body does when it wants to do it, but I wasn’t about to let the pain stop me,” she said.

And she doesn’t plan on stopping her educational journey. Wallace plans to return to MATC in 2023 and take courses in early childhood and keyboarding.

“It’s never too late to be all you can be,” she said. “I have made plenty of mistakes in my life, but how do we learn if we never make mistakes? This has been an amazing experience and I can’t wait to go back to class in the spring.”

“She has such a positive, glowing personality. It rubs off on everyone,” Thielen said. “When she laughs, we all laugh. The fact that she can have this positive of a spirit after the challenges that she's been through in life, tells me she's on the right path. She's right where she needs to be.”

Find out more about MATC’s GED and HSED programs, and about the 5.09 High School Completion program.

About MATC: Wisconsin’s largest technical college and one of the most diverse two-year institutions in the Midwest, Milwaukee Area Technical College is a key driver of southeastern Wisconsin’s economy and has provided innovative education in the region since 1912. More than 25,000 students per year attend the college’s four campuses and community-based sites or learn online. MATC offers affordable and accessible education and training opportunities that empower and transform lives in the community. The college offers more than 170 academic programs — many that prepare students for jobs immediately upon completion and others that provide transfer options leading to bachelor’s degrees with more than 40 four-year colleges and universities. Overwhelmingly, MATC graduates build careers and businesses in southeastern Wisconsin. The college is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.