WATERLOO — It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for Leon Shears.
The Cedar Falls resident had completed his first year at Hawkeye Community College in 2011 when he was arrested and sent to prison.
After he got out last year, he wasn’t sure if they’d let him go back to college.
So he got involved with the Educational Opportunity Center, a program of the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Urban Education that assists nontraditional students like Shears.
Not only did Shears achieve a 3.0 grade-point average or higher at Hawkeye in the past year, he graduated with his associate’s degree this spring — and has plans to get his bachelor’s at UNI in the social work program.
“When you need that extra help, they’re here to help,” Shears said of the EOC.
Two dozen students were recognized Friday at the EOC’s annual luncheon in Waterloo for achieving 3.0 GPAs in the past academic year. Shears and five others were also recognized for graduating from high school or college.
“I think it’s important to recognize achievements by our students,” said Kathy Martin, UNI-CUE’s assistant director. “Maybe it’s just somebody that never had that opportunity or guidance to get there.”
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Charletta Sudduth, the luncheon’s keynote speaker and the early childhood consultant with Waterloo Community Schools, said achievement — and perseverance — is crucial in life.
“You do not have to be smart, intelligent or intellectual,” Sudduth told the crowd of students and their families. “The one thing that you need is just, simply, perseverance.”
Martin said the EOC typically helps nontraditional students age 19 and above who want to further their education, whether it’s finishing high school, getting their GED, applying to trade programs or colleges or applying for student loans.
Student Brian Mauer, who worked for Wonder Bread for 25 years until it closed, told the crowd he appreciated the EOC’s help filling out his application for federal student aid.
That and other coaching — like computer usage and speaking in public — helped Mauer return to college and ultimately start his business, Crane Creek Kayaks, which sells Mauer’s patented stabilizer for canoes and kayaks.
“After not being in school for 30 years, it was hard to go back,” he said. “I know I’m on my way. ... I know I’ve got the things to get to where I’m going.”
Stories like that, said Martin, make the program — in place for at least a few decades — continue to be worth it.
“It’s just grown and grown each year,” she said.