Submitted photo

Celebrating completing the University of New Mexico-Valencia’s Next Steps Adult Education program, graduates toss their hats into the air prior to the ceremony earlier this month.

Irene Worley has dreams of one day becoming an elementary school teacher.

Her path to that dream may take a bit longer than most, but the 29-year-old wife and mother is determined as she navigates working and going to college full-time. Worley not only wants more for her family, but for herself as well, and the only way she can achieve her goal is with an education.Irene Worley has dreams of one day becoming an elementary school teacher.

Years after leaving Belen High School without receiving her diploma and pregnant with her first child, Worley finally realized that getting an education was how she would achieve her dream.

Clara Garcia | News-Bulletin photo Irene Worley successfully completed the University of New Mexico-Valencia’s Next Steps Adult Education program, and is now in college full-time, pursuing a degree in early childhood education.

Today, she is a graduate of the University of New Mexico-Valencia campus Next Steps Adult Education program, is a college freshman and is more confident in herself and in her capabilities than she’s ever been before.

“I was never proud of myself because I dropped out (of high school) and had a kid at such a young age,” Worley said. “My instructors and everybody here (at the Next Steps Adult Education) raised me up and made me a better person. I don’t know how, but they always had the right things to say.”

The role education plays in life is different for everyone, and the opportunity is available for those who want a better future for themselves and their families.

The Next Steps Adult Education Center offers support to adults to strengthen their core academic skills and meet personal, educational and career goals.

The free program helps people prepare for high school equivalency exams, learn English as a second language, as well as becoming college-ready and enter a career pathway.

Michael Carriere, a UNM-Valencia Next Steps program specialist, says they also help students get into the Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST) classes.

“Right now, it’s getting into the certified nursing assistant or phlebotomy classes — career pathways,” Carriere said. “We also help them get into college and help them get into a career. We have partnered with Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, so we work with Workforce Solutions and Workforce Connections. They help them write resumes and get into jobs.”

Most students in the program are non-traditional students, meaning they’re older than the typical college student.

“We have had students who have their high school diploma but its been a while and they’ve been out of school for 15 or 20 years,” Carriere said. “They decided to take college classes and they might need a little help remembering those fundamental skills such as mathematics and writing essays.”

When a student does decide to enter the Next Step Program, they’ll undergo an assessment, which will give them an idea of where they’re at academically and what skills they need to work on. From there, they can choose from classes — either in the morning or afternoon — including, language arts, math, English language learners and blended learning.

“Something that came out of the pandemic is what we call our high-flex classes, where our students can come in-person and, if they can’t, we live-stream those classes so they can participate at home,” Carriere said.

Clara Garcia | News-Bulletin photo Michael Carriere, program specialist, and Claudia Lopez, instructor, say students participate in the Next Steps Adult Education program for a variety of reasons, but ultimately to better their lives.

The blended learning class is taught by Claudia Lopez and includes math, social studies, science, reading and writing in order to prepare for the high school equivalency tests.

“We use the class time to cover a variety of topics, most of the time math,” Lopez said. “We use the time for the areas they’re struggling with.”

The program lasts as long as the student needs it, Carriere said.

“We’ve had students get through it really quick. The record right now is two months, but I think that was a home-schooled student who just left school and wanted to get done and move onto college,” he said. “We don’t teach to the test, really; we help the students acquire the skills that they’re going to need either in the work place, college — really whatever they choose.”

Worley’s decision to get her high school equivalency and go to college was made after overhearing a conversation between her oldest daughter and niece.

“I remember one day, about three years ago, we were driving down the street and I had my daughter and niece in the back seat. They were about 10 years old, and they were talking about college — cutest thing ever,” Worley remembers. “My niece asked my daughter if she was going to college. She said, ‘No, because my mom never did.’”

That hit home for Worley, and about two weeks later, she signed up for the Next Steps Adult Education program.

“I had my family early when I was young. I kind of left school behind and focused on raising my family,” she said. “I know that isn’t a good excuse, because now that I’m older, I know I could have fought for it harder. It was easier to walk away from high school.”

While Worley has a good, full-time job now, it isn’t something Worley wants to do for the rest of her life. She knows education is an important tool to help her realize her dream of one day becoming an elementary school teacher.

“I love my children and I know they’re our future,” she said. “That’s why I decided to be a teacher. I had a lot of teachers who made a difference to me, and I want to be that for somebody else.”

As a wife and mother, raising three children and working full-time, it took Worley a little more time to complete the program, which she did in December 2021. In January, she started her college career, taking five classes.

“The first thing I did after finishing my (high school equivalency) test is I went home and cried,” she said. “I was so emotional because it took me two times to pass it because I failed the math part.”

Earlier this month, Worley and several others participated in the graduation ceremony from the Next Steps program. She said the best part was having her children there, watching what she was able to accomplish.

“My kids kept hugging me, telling me how proud they are of me,” she said. “It’s my dream to come to school and better myself. Having a family pushing me more to do better is making me want it more. I want to show them that yes, I have a lot on my hands and I deal with a lot, but it’s not going to stop me from living my dream.”

Worley says its been with the support of her husband, Andrew, and their children that she’s been able to go back to school. Without them, she says, she doesn’t know if she would have had the will or even the courage to do it.

She also credits her Next Step instructors for their encouragement.

“Some people say this program is so hard, but it really helped me,” Worley said. “I had high grades this semester because they (Next Step instructors) drove me so much. I learned what to expect and I didn’t go into so stressed because they taught me so well. A lot of my professors were amazed how well I did.”

When asked what advise she had for others thinking about going back to school, Worley said, “I would tell them to stop doing what they’re doing and come here and start something real. It changed my life; it made a big difference.”

Lopez said Worley’s story reminds her of what she went through as a young person — the struggles of work and raising a young family.

“I saw the fight in her, and I told her she was going to finish,” Lopez said of Worley. “I told her to see herself walking the line and see herself getting the diploma. I see her going far.”

“It’s not easy, but anything you fight for in this world is worth it,” Worley said of her education. “God doesn’t hand you anything; you have to work hard for it.”

Click the ad above to learn more about our Lessons for Living series sponsor, Nusenda Credit Union

What’s your Reaction?

Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.