NaCole Cole is a big dreamer, but even she didn’t dream this big.

At her high school graduation, Cole had what was probably the best surprise of her lifetime. Cole learned she was the winner of the $40,000 Best of the Best Scholarship presented by Simon Youth Foundation.

This is an outstanding accomplishment for any student. However, a look at Cole’s path to this honor, makes this accomplishment an even bigger surprise and blessing.

Cole dropped out of high school 20 years ago. Her mother was a drug addict, and Cole just checked out. She ran way from home, and for a while lived at the Wichita Children’s Home. While she wasn’t a teenager mother, let’s just say it took Cole years to get her life in order.

When you meet Cole, you’ll see aconfident, outgoing and articulate young woman and never guess she hadn’t completed high school. Because of this strenght of personality, Cole says it’s been easy to find and keep a jobs. On the application where they ask,” did you graduate high school,” she always indicated yes, and rarely did anyone check or ask for proof.

She’s worked mostly in customer service jobs where the pay was so-so, but the turnover is high. It wasn’t minimum wage, but it wasn’t where Cole wanted to be.

With out much family support, Cole kept starting and stopping on her goal to graduate high school. It actually took her 10 years., because she’d quit and at the encouragement of a friend or family member, decide to just get a GED. But ultimately, Cole said she knew she wanted a l diploma.

She found her way to the Wichita Learning Center, a high school for adults 18 and over. Students are able to work at home at their own pace, but when they want to or need assistance, they can come in and work with the program staff. The school is one of several special educational programs located at the Chester I Lewis School, in what older folks still refer to as Mathewson; or Northeast Magnet, if you’re not quite as old.

Last year, the School Board almost closed the Learning Center Program but Cole led a protest in front of the School District’s Administrative Offices. The school was funded for another year and this year they’ve almost tripled their numbdf of graduates from 13 to 38.

That’s because word is getting around about how the program helps students. “It’s like a family here,” says Cole.

It was this family that wrapped their arms around Cole and helped keep her on track despite the things going on in her.

Last year, her grandmother — the one stable and supportive force in her life – died. This year, as she was working to complete the two classes she needed to graduate, her youngest son was hit by a car on East 13th St.

He needed to go to Nebraska for months of medical care, and Cole packed up and went with him. With all this going on, she still finished her classes on time and graduated with her class.

It is this kind of commitment that made Simon Youth foundation select Cole for their annual Best of the Best Scholarship. The foundation usually awards two $7,000 per year, four year renewable scholarships to two students at each of the Simon Associated Adult learning programs. Going into graduation, Cole was feeling pretty optimistic about her chance to win one of those scholarships. Instead she was awarded a scholarship worth $10,000 per year for four years,, with an option for a 5th Year at $10,000. Simon only selects one student from their 30 Learning Programs to receive this recognition.

Cole wants to earn a Phd. in Psychology and open a home for teenage girls who’ve had it tough coming up, kind of like her. She plans to attend Butler County Community College in the Fall, then on to Wichita State.

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