NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - The Army National Guard GED Plus program surpassed another milestone Friday as the 10,000th graduate walked across the stage with his GED diploma.
When his name was called, Army Pvt. Corey Blackwood smiled as he shook hands with the official party and received his diploma from GED Plus Commandant Army Lt. Col. Mary Maguire.
For Blackwood, it was one of the first milestones he had ever achieved: Little did he know that his accomplishment would represent all of those who came before him.
"It wasn’t just because I was proud and honored to be the 10,000 graduate, but the fact that I am representing everyone else who has done it too," Blackwood said. "This is a big achievement for GED Plus."
Blackwood had his share of adversity during his adolescence growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
"I came from a poor family," Blackwood said. "I dropped out high school to help my ailing mother and provide for my family. Then I sat around for two years not knowing what I was going to do with my life. I was lost."
Like many other former high school dropouts, Blackwood didn’t listen to the naysayers of the world who told him he wouldn’t amount to anything or would never make it in the military.
According to Maguire, the leadership of the Army National Guard didn’t listen to the naysayers either when they instituted GED Plus in 2006. The program graduated 493 recruits in its initial year and swelled to a current through-put of approximately 3,000 per year.
"We have surpassed 10,000 graduates here at the Army National Guard GED Plus program," Maguire told the 65 graduates and family members attending the ceremony.
"I’m sure on day one that they never thought we’d ever get to 10,000. We’ve been able to make a difference in 10,000 plus lives and we’ll continue to do so in the future."
GED Plus was the vision of retired Army Lt. Gen. Clyde A. Vaughn, former director of the Army National Guard.
Himself a GED recipient, Vaughn knew what it was like to be left out and left behind without a high school diploma.
Since Vaughn spearheaded the project in 2006, its rapid growth required the recent construction of a state-of-the-art, 90,000 square-foot building, featuring 22 classrooms, 12 barracks and a dining facility.
Located at Camp Robinson in North Little Rock, Ark., the facility is capable of accommodating up to 7,500 students per year.
Recruits are exposed to both a military basic training and academic environment, instructed by experienced educators, drill sergeants and school cadre.
GED Plus officials said expansion is being discussed, with the possibility of adding a high school degree option for future recruits.
Army Sgt. Maj. Corey B. Jackson, the GED Plus program’s newest sergeant major, said while the Army National Guard is over its Congressionally mandated end strength, programs like GED Plus are critical because of the positive impact in our communities to help solve America’s crisis in education.
"The Army National Guard, true to its roots and foundation, reached back to America 10,000 times," Jackson said. "The GED Plus program has given Citizen-Soldiers an opportunity that they would otherwise been unable to have."
Blackwood said while the world may have given up on him, he didn’t give up on himself and neither did the Army National Guard.
"Now I’ve got my GED and I’m going to serve my country," Blackwood said. "It’s possible – you’ve just got to keep trying."
Blackwood shipped to Army basic training at Fort Benning on Sunday and is scheduled to complete his advanced individual training there at the U.S. Army Infantry School this summer.
Upon graduation, he will return home to serve with the Michigan Army National Guard’s 125th Infantry Regiment. Blackwood plans to attend college and pursue his associate degree in criminology.
"Now, I feel like a man," said Blackwood. "I feel like I’m something. I feel a lot of honor and pride."