Rita Davis dropped out of high school in 1996 when she was 16 years old.

She admits she didn’t value education at the time, nor did she listen to her parents’ advice that she get her diploma. But after she quit, reality stared her in the face.

She needed a job.

That summer, she was hired by a national department store, where she worked as an associate in the portrait studio. Davis soon married and had children of her own, and she remained at the department store.

She gradually worked her way up the corporate ladder and into the role of district sales manager, where she eventually was helping operate 15 stores in Louisiana and Mississippi.

That’s certainly an accomplishment, especially for a high school dropout. But despite her success, Davis felt incomplete. Not having a high school diploma hit especially hard when she spoke to her own 16-year-old daughter about the importance of education. She couldn’t truly speak with conviction, she said, unless she took action.

So Davis made what she called one of the hardest decisions of her life: She would go back to school.

She sat in her car outside the Northshore Technical Community College Campus for half hour before mustering the courage to walk inside and register. She doubted herself and feared she might be judged for failing to graduate high school, even though that was 20 years ago.

What she found at NTCC, however, was vastly different than what she expected.

“I was embarrassed,’ Davis said during her address to fellow graduates at the commencement May 17 at Church of the King near Mandeville. “But the people at Northshore Technical Community College didn’t care about my past. Their only concern was for my future. They wanted me to succeed.”

And Davis did succeed, as evidenced by her being one of two class of 2017 members selected to address classmates during HiSET commencement exercises.

In all, 102 of the 270 graduates were on hand to get their HiSET diplomas that evening. More than 1,000 family, friends and well-wishers joined them, and small (but enthusiastic) groups stood and cheered when each graduate walked across the stage to receive a diploma.

There are many reasons students enroll in HiSET classes. There are those like Davis, who dropped out years before and want to prove something to themselves and their families.

Others may have had to leave school to get a job to support family, flunked out because of bad grades, or left because of pregnancy. And still, there are some who leave school early because they have excelled and are moving on to higher learning at an earlier age.

For whatever reason they come, those who work in adult education say it’s increasingly important that they do.

“For 70 years, getting a GED was about grandma going back to school because she wanted to show her grandkids that education was serious business,” said Jason Leader the WorkReady U/Adult Education director at NTCC. “That’s all good, but we ask ‘What’s next?’ We focus on what’s going to happen after you get that diploma. We want to get people into (college) or into the workforce.”

HiSET (High School Equivalency Test) is similar to the GED (General Equivalency Diploma) in that it's used to measure basic knowledge of skills learned in the traditional high-school setting. The HiSET is the test of choice at NTCC, and while studying for it, students also are coached on various other life skills that could help them succeed at two-year or four-year colleges.

Some of them study for the HiSET and take college classes concurrently.

“Either way, they can better benefit themselves and the community,” Leader said. “They can be a part of the tax base and be productive. They can be proud of their accomplishments and build upon them.”

Statistics show that the system indeed is helping those who are reintroduced to education. NTCC, for example, hired a coordinator two years ago to help transition students from high school equivalency classes into the regular NTCC curriculum.

“The number of people passing their equivalency test and entering NTCC itself has grown by 200 percent since we hired a person to coordinate that transition,” Leader said. “That’s a high rate, and we’re very pleased with it.”

Davis is on a similar path. Now 36, she’s passed the HiSET and plans to continue her education with hopes of becoming an elementary school teacher.

“I could stop at getting my (HiSET) diploma, but why?” she said. “I will certainly be opening new doors … I will not look back.”

Christina Mollard, another adult graduate to pass the HiSET, also was chosen by her peers to speak at the commencement. Her story is similar to one often heard among those who take the test.

Her parents divorced when she was 14, and she lost her grandmother (her role model) a few years later. Soon, she was a mother and a wife, and there wasn’t much time to consider pursuing her education. But just before her father died in 2013, Mollard promised him she would get her high school equivalency diploma.

Receiving it was an emotional experience, as was telling her story on May 17.

“I felt like I was dying when I moved to Louisiana in June 2015,” she told the audience. “I didn’t know anyone. It was hard. But I told myself I was finally going to do this.

"It was a struggle … It showed us we can achieve anything and that it doesn’t stop here … If you struggle, you can look back on this day and say 'I can do it.' This is the beginning of a better future.”