The graduates nervously adjusted their caps and gowns before the first notes of "Pomp and Circumstance" rang out from the speakers.
Their families sat waiting, clutching programs, some also grasping handfuls of tissues ready for the tears to come.
One by one, they walked down the aisle, ready to receive their diplomas. Though they had never met each other previously, these six women had something in common.
Something happened earlier in their lives that got them off track and prevented them from graduating with their peers in high school. They forged another path, one that led a different way for years. But then they each decided to turn their journeys back to earn high school degrees through a new program at the Mesa County Libraries.
However circuitous their journeys were coming to this common achievement, it didn't matter. They had arrived.
Amanda Sparks' journey to graduating from high school took her through motherhood and various jobs until she decided she needed a diploma to pursue higher education and a career. She was a good student in high school but met a roadblock when she was 16 in the form of undiagnosed social anxiety and depression. At 35, she's got that part of her life under control and she's finishing something she wishes she could have done a long time ago.
Sparks, who works as a dog groomer, finished the program in about a year while working full time and supporting her family, including her 9- and 6-year-old daughters, 17-year-old stepson and husband Cliff, who just finished his first full year of classes at Colorado Mesa University. She completed the online classes after her daughters went to bed, mostly, something the other moms in the graduating class could relate to as well.
She said she was grateful for the chance to earn a real diploma, not just a GED. Sparks couldn't afford the tuition to do the online high school program and jumped at the chance to enroll for free. She was the first student to enroll in the new program last year.
On Tuesday night, she sat in a line of women who shared stories of hardship and sacrifice, who looked forward to the opportunities this piece of paper they earned would bring to them.
Some were motivated by their own children to accomplish this goal, like Rosalva Martinez, Yessica Rowe and Amber Cornish. Some were hoping to become the first in their families to graduate from college, like Isabel Lyons, who plans on pursuing a career in nursing.
Students have 1½ years to complete the program but could finish faster, like graduate Melissa Wilson. She's graduating in roughly six months, plans on enrolling in higher education, and seemed ready to tackle the next step.
"I'd like to thank my mother for her incredible patience, it took 20 years," she said from the podium.
These six women comprise the first of many groups to complete the alternative degree program, which started after the Colorado State Library applied for a grant to provide tuition for the Career Online High School. When the state organization first approached the Mesa County Libraries, Head of Literacy Services James Price requested 15 slots, each covering the $1,100 tuition per student.
The state library gave him 30 seats after examining demographic data for Mesa County that showed a significant need in the community for more resources, as roughly 10,000 Mesa County residents age 25 or older did not earn high school diplomas.
Now the program has 26 students enrolled, ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s. Enrolling requires potential students to fill out an interest questionnaire, complete two weeks of a trial course online and do an interview with library personnel about their interest in the program.
"That's where you start hearing their stories," Price said. "We're always sure to have a box of tissues in there for those interviews."
During these interviews, applicants sometimes talk about the missteps that led them down paths away from graduating the first time. Some had rough life circumstances or family issues, or were pushed out of traditional paths to success.
Speakers at the graduation acknowledged the traditional advice given to high school graduates didn't really fit the occasion, given the amount of life experience these woman have already.
"You came to us with perspective," Price said. "You knew where you were and where you wanted to be."
Tuesday night, this is where they wanted to be.
One by one, they stepped forward and received their diplomas — real paper ones — and said their thanks at the podium.
And then, with an eye toward the future, they turned their tassels.
The Career Online High School at the Mesa County Libraries is accepting applications. For more information, call 683-2443 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.