Renee Carnahan said she’d had “a very rough start” in life and so felt happy to be at the Bozeman School District’s graduation celebration Wednesday evening for students who earned their high school equivalency diplomas.

Carnahan, 25, the graduation speaker, told the crowd of well-wishers at Willson Auditorium that she had been addicted to drugs.

But now – thanks to her sister, her fiancé, the Bozeman Learning Center and nonprofit Thrive’s Partnership Project — she’s on a path to a brighter future.

She was one of 22 young people who wore red and black graduation robes and caps to receive their HiSET high school equivalency diplomas, formerly known as GEDs.

“I had nothing going for me” back home in North Carolina, Carnahan said. She begged her older sister to take her with her to Montana. Her lowest point came when she lost custody of her little boy, she said. “I thought my life was over.”

Once in Bozeman she met Stephanie Hill of the Partnership Project, which helps young families with health and education needs. Hill helped her find an apartment and get her driver’s license.

In January Carnahan started taking free classes toward her HiSET equivalency diploma at the Bozeman Learning Center, on the second floor of Willson School. By May she had passed the tests, said Shae Thompson, one of two instructors.

“I went from living in a garage to a three-bedroom apartment,” Carnahan said. “I’ve got so far in life compared to where I started. … I’ve been clean since June last year.”

The audience of more than 100 family members and friends applauded and cheered for her.

Now that she has accomplished the HiSET diploma, Carnahan said she has more confidence and a plan — to apply to dental hygienist school “to secure my future and my kids’ future.”

“She’s bright,” Thompson said. “She got it done.”

This is the largest class to complete the HiSET program in the last five years, Thompson said.

This school year 124 students enrolled in the program and 51 passed rigorous tests to earn their diplomas, said Byrdeen Warwood, community education coordinator for the Bozeman schools.

Warwood praised the students for not quitting when they felt discouraged, for not letting their pasts define them and for overcoming self-doubt.

“Life is tough,” Warwood said, “but you are tougher.”

Thompson said some students choose the HiSET program to finish high school early to start college or work, some had health issues that prevented graduating from high school, and some just don’t feel connected to high school.

She and fellow Learning Center instructor Joanna Stratman said earning the HiSET diplomas would help students move on to better jobs or to college and training programs. Students sometimes had tears of disappointment, but they persevered.

“A key factor was social support,” they said, whether from families, friends, employers or strangers.

Hill agreed that having a support system is crucial, and helps people have a happier and longer life, decreases stress and helps to cope with life’s obstacles.

“Everyone needs their people,” Hill said. She said she felt “so inspired” by the young people who earned their HiSET diplomas.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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