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Gainesville mother-daughter overcome obstacles, take advantage of UNG educational programs

Gainesville mother-daughter overcome obstacles, take advantage of UNG educational programs
Blanca de Jesus Ruiz Lopez, 38, earned her General Educational Development (GED) certificate earlier this year through the High School Equivalency Program (HEP) at the University of North Georgia (UNG). Her daughter, Astrid Torres, plans to follow a similar path as her mother. She will enroll at UNG in spring 2018 through College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP).

As a young mother, Blanca de Jesus Ruiz Lopez wanted a better life for her and her 3-year-old daughter, Astrid Torres. At 23, she scooped up her child and walked out of her home in Honduras and headed for the U.S.

"It took us 23 days," Ruiz said. "We walked. And we took buses. We came through Guatemala and Mexico to the United States. I wanted the opportunities here for her and me."

One of those opportunities included the Gainesville woman, now 38, earning her General Educational Development (GED) certificate earlier this year through the High School Equivalency Program (HEP) at the University of North Georgia (UNG).

HEP helps migratory and seasonal farm workers and members of their immediate family obtain a GED. The program provides free textbooks and materials, GED testing, career readiness workshops, financial assistance, and flexible class schedules.

This summer, Ruiz's accomplishment was recognized as she and three others participated in the GED graduation ceremony at UNG's Gainesville Campus.

Torres plans to follow a similar path as her mother. She will enroll at UNG in spring 2018 through College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP).

CAMP is a first-year scholarship program that provides students with academic, social and financial support enabling them to complete their first year of college and beyond. These grant programs are funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Migrant Education, and is administered through the University College in the Academic Affairs Division at UNG.

Christian Bello Escobar, UNG director of Migrant Programs and Services and director of HEP and CAMP, explained Ruiz qualified for HEP since she was a seasonal worker, including gathering and sorting eggs in  Pendergrass, Georgia, in the past two years.

"I wanted to set a good example for my kids and be a good role model for them," said Ruiz, who has an 11-year-old son, Rodney Santana. "And I wanted to be something else, because without an education you don't get good jobs. Most companies ask if you have a GED. If you don't have it, you don't get a job."

In January, Ruiz took the practice exam and passed. Then she passed the GED two months later. Now, she wants to earn an associate degree at UNG, but her daughter will start college first.

Torres wanted to attend college in South Carolina, but the cost was too high; so when she heard about CAMP, she chose UNG.

"When they offered to pay for my first year, I was like 'That was awesome,'" Torres said.

Torres qualifies for the program since her mother moved from Norcross to Gainesville to work in the poultry industry when they initially moved to the United States, Bello Escobar said.

Torres said she believes CAMP will help her transition to college life, especially managing the heavy course load. But Torres has already faced a heavy obstacle in her life. She was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy at age 9. In cardiomyopathy, the heart muscle becomes enlarged, thick or rigid.

Astrid received her first life-saving operation in 2011 to repair the valve in her heart. She spent one week in the hospital and another one at home before asking her mother to return to school.

"She went back," Ruiz said. "I was very impressed."

On graduation day, it was Astrid's turn to be impressed with her mother, the GED graduate. She said she was excited to see her mom in a cap and gown at the GED ceremony in Gainesville.

"I got to feel what she felt when she saw me in my cap and goal," Astrid said.

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