Center for Community Engagement

45 Minutes: An Inside View into the Lives of Adult Learners

When we sit down in front of a blank piece of paper, we’re all the same.”

On Thursday, April 8, community leaders, educators, adult learners, and Amherst students gathered at the Alumni House for 45 Minutes. 45 Minutes, named for the amount of time allotted to the essay portion of the GED (General Educational Development) exam, was a touching and fun fundraising event meant to increase awareness of the struggles of being an adult learner and raise funds for the Holyoke Community College Adult Learning Center.

The Holyoke Community College Adult Learning Center pioneers a program that allows adults without a high school diploma to continue their education. The center is home to a group of adult learners from all walks of life who share one thing in common: the desire to go back to school and be successful in the future. The adults go through three phases throughout the program: pre-GED, GED, and fast-track math, in that order. They attend class twice a week from 6-8:30 p.m. in preparation for the GED exam. Once the students are well-prepared, they enroll for the exam and, if they pass, they are then helped with the college application process.    
For the event, community leaders and professional writers agreed to sit for 45 minutes and write an essay in response to a prompt under the same conditions the adult GED test takers would. The writers were William Messner, president of Holyoke Community College, Tom Mechem, GED chief state examiner of Massachusetts, attorney William C. “Bill” Newman, director of the Western Massachusetts Office of the American Civil Liberties Union, Jeanette DeForge, reporter for the Republican newspaper, and Judith Frank, associate professor of English at Amherst College. All five writers read their time-pressured work to the audience and discussed their experiences with the task. “The last time I wrote under time pressure was 45 years ago and that was for my final 8-hour composition for my Ph.D. in history,” said Messner. “When I got the question I sat there and said, ‘What am I going to write about?’” added Frank.

The GED prompt, which asked the participating writers to write about a time in their life in which they needed the help of someone to overcome an obstacle, produced diverse and touching essays. Professor Frank wrote about the time when she was sent to study in Israel and how a friend helped her overcome the loneliness. William Messner wrote about how his wife helped him through graduate school and attorney William Newman took the liberty of writing his response in rhyme. By the end of the night, all agreed that writing under pressure is not easy and that, as Mechem stated, “When we sit down in front of a blank piece of paper, we’re all the same.”

Molly Mead, director of the Center for Community Engagement, commented on the partnership between Amherst College and the Holyoke Community College Adult Learning Center. “Often, the word ‘partnership’ is used without there really being one. But what has been going on between Amherst College and the Adult Learning Center for the past six years is truly a partnership,” she said. Karen Sanchez-Eppler, professor of English and American Studies, is one of many faculty members who teach English 2: Reading, Writing, and Teaching at Amherst College. She requires that all of her students tutor at the Adult Learning Center at least once a week throughout the semester. Eszter Vincze, a senior and veteran of English 2, spoke about her experience as a tutor at the event. “Sometimes I feel being called a tutor is a misnomer. It’s difficult to accept being called a tutor when I’m the one learning,” she said.

The event not only highlighted the struggles of being an adult learner, but also shed some light on the need for adult education services in Holyoke. Aliza Ansell, program coordinator of the Adult Learning Center, said, “The event will educate the audience and participants about the often hidden realities about adults in our urban communities, as well as illuminate the triumph in a city that faces up to 25 percent illiteracy.” “Everyone knows about K-12, but often people forget about our adult learners,” added Emily Fox, also program coordinator of the Adult Learning Center.
The two-hour event ended with donations from the audience to the program and the announcement of the silent auction winners. Everyone humbly walked away from the Alumni House with an “Education Changes Lives” wristband and a greater understanding of what it means to be an adult learner.          

Lorena Rodriguez '13 is a staff writer for the CCE. She is passionate about human rights and education. She is very much a law nerd and she absolutely loves traveling, learning, reading, and eating shrimp and strawberries.