By Evan Sernoffsky
The golden arches of McDonald’s, a few street lights, and a blank white billboard glow brightly in the early morning winter blackness on Highway 99 in Junction City. A mother and daughter stand at the bus stop next to a closed Dairy Queen, waiting to catch the only early morning ride into Eugene.
Morning commuters and 18-wheelers whistle past Maria Elena Regelado and her daughter Jessica Valdez on their one-mile walk to the stop.
“We have to get up at 5 a.m. to catch the bus a 6:45 a.m.,” Regelado says. She and her daughter wait for the No. 95 bus every weekday in order to get to school.
Regelado and Valdez are studying to get their G.E.D.s, and even though almost three decades separate 16-year-old Valdez from her mom, they have found a common bond where age makes no difference. “It brings us closer together,” Valdez says. “Sometimes I don’t see her as my mom, I see her more like as my friend. We’ll help each other when the quizzes come.”
“It’s really special,” Regelado says. “I never imagined that one day I would be able to study with my daughter.”
Valdez and Regelado attend the High School Equivalency Program (HEP) located across the street from the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field. They hone their skills in literature, grammar, math, social studies and science in a 10-week intensive program designed to prepare students for the G.E.D.
Regelado learned about HEP after she and her daughter moved to Eugene from Santa Barbara, Calif. Valdez had been struggling in different high schools and decided to join her mother in getting her G.E.D.
The federally funded High School Equivalency Program was established in 1967 by the Department of Education to help educate migrant workers in the United States.
The program was designed specifically for Hispanic workers from South and Central America, says Joel Montemayor, the program’s director. After students graduate he says, they are encouraged to follow one of three paths: go to college, join the military or get a job doing social work with families.
Regelado is not a migrant worker but has toiled at enough labor-intensive jobs to qualify her and her daughter for the program. She worked as a hotel maid and in food service at dozens of restaurants. After graduation she wants to go into social work. “I want to get my G.E.D. because I want to study psychology. I want to help people with emotional problems … especially women.”
Valdez is young and full of aspiration. At 16, Valdez doesn’t display any signs of teenage high school apathy. When she talks about her future, her eyes light up at the possibilities. “I want to be a nurse, maybe a lawyer. … I just want to help people,” she says.
“We work with a very diverse group of students,” says Nora Fandino, a teacher at HEP. “We work with students from Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and they all come with a great story. Life is not usually easy for them, so they have incredible stories that they bring to the program.”
“We have good teachers that really make an effort to make sure we get good grades,” Regelado says. “I think that I’m going to pass the G.E.D.”
Regelado and Valdez recently finished taking their tests for the G.E.D. If they graduate they plan to start taking classes at Lane Community College and then transfer to the University of Oregon. For now, they continue the early-morning commute from Junction City. Soon the bitter winter cold will turn to spring and mother and daughter hope to have their G.E.D.s in hand so they can work on helping others in need.
This article originally appeared here.