51-year-old Mark Cooksey, of Waldorf, Md.
LA PLATA, Md. (January 12, 2019)—For 51-year-old Mark Cooksey, of Waldorf, finally earning his high school diploma through the Adult Education Program at the College of Southern Maryland (CSM) allowed him to stand right some wrong turns, rewrite his future, and accomplish it all—in just two months.
"We all have accomplished something special here and I would like to congratulate the entire class," he said during his recent graduation ceremony at CSM's Prince Frederick Campus where he served as the student guest speaker. "As you can tell just by me being here, I did not finish school. Why, you ask?"
And so began Cooksey's short but deeply purposeful explanation of the speech impediment he had struggled with throughout his time in public schools. "I knew most of the answers to the questions in class, I just refused to answer them even when the teachers called upon me. At the age of 15 and being a troubled child, I was done with school and they were done with me—so I was expelled."
Cooksey said he struggled for the next 36 years, "working harder and longer than everyone else" moving through the ranks, and getting a job in the energy industry. "Although I was making a very good living I never felt good about myself for all those years. At least a dozen times a year, I would dream of returning to school and graduating. Deep down inside, I knew having a diploma was one of the most important things I could ever do for myself. So important, in fact, that I made my son know that dropping out of school and not getting a high school diploma was not an option for him."
Cooksey explained that he kept his secret of not graduating close at hand until he was offered a promotion at work.
"Then it happened," he said. "They asked for a copy of my high school diploma or GED so I could finish the paperwork for my promotion and there I was with nothing to show them."
At that moment, Cooksey said he decided to do something, and do it with fierce determination.
"The first day I met him—he asked what was the fastest anyone has done this," said CSM's National External Diploma Program (NEDP) Lead Advisor Trudy Rice, who has administered the program for 19 years.
"I told Mark that the quickest I had witnessed someone completing the program was three months, but it was really hard," she explained. "He (Cooksey) said, 'I'll beat that.' And he did."
Cooksey earned his high school diploma in two months. Rice called Cooksey's achievement "record-breaking."
Students enrolled in the NEDP program review 10 Content Areas which Rice describes as "a lot of work, but very rewarding." It offers workforce development-focused courses that assist adult students with practical, real life areas of study. Unlike the General Educational Development (GED), which is a timed test, NEDP provides a supervised study guide with material and student review provided by Rice and her fellow advisors scattered across the state at other community colleges.
"He came in every week and completed his work with flying colors," she said. "There he was, learning a new job, learning new software at work, being a husband, a father and studying to get his high school diploma," she said. "He was driven. It was incredible to see how hard he worked to get through the program. I started working during the weekends just to keep up with him."
"One thing that was also neat about him," she continued, "was that his company gave him the promotion before he completed the program, but he completed it anyway."
"The most important message I want to get out there to people with disabilities who are struggling in school is don't give up," shared Cooksey. "I want people who are handicapped in any way to believe that nothing in life can hold them back."
Cooksey said that once he took the step to get his diploma, and with the guidance and support from Rice, the NEDP program was manageable.
"Ms. Trudy Rice helped grow my confidence and I became outgoing and eager to learn," Cooksey said. "For that, I thank you Ms. Rice. The program for me made me want to work hard and go the extra mile to accomplish my lifelong goal of having my high school diploma. Once my first paper was done, I was off and running," he shared. "Every day I worked on it. Every Sunday I hit the computer for 12 hours a day to get it done."
Calling his journey "one of the best times" of his life, Cooksey said there is nothing to hold him back. "I feel more confident about myself than I ever have in my life," he added. "This achievement has secured my future. Since earning my diploma I have earned nine certifications in welding and one in thermal imaging and I plan to go back to get my steam engineers license next year."
There are more than 500,000 people in the state of Maryland without a high school diploma, according to Rice, yet very few people know about the National External Diploma Program which is available at community colleges throughout the state. This web-based program for adults and out-of-school youth offers flexibility to earn a diploma. The online program allows students to work at their own pace with guidance and review from an advisor/assessor.
"It fits in well with our working clients who have a hard time making it to the Adult Basic Education classes we offer at the college," Rice continued.
"I always felt behind the eight ball," added Cooksey. "But now that I have my diploma, I can do anything. I can do everything."