From grandma to graduate: Ottawa woman says earning high school diploma a dream come true

Hala Najm, who walked across the stage to accept her high school diploma a week before her 61st birthday, called the experience a dream come true.  (Submitted by Hala Najm - image credit)
Hala Najm, who walked across the stage to accept her high school diploma a week before her 61st birthday, called the experience a dream come true. (Submitted by Hala Najm - image credit)

The few steps required to walk across the stage to accept her high school diploma were ones Hala Najm envisioned for years.

Not just the two years it took for her complete her course load — the 61-year-old says receiving her diploma is an idea that's tugged on her for decades, having come to Canada from Lebanon in 1977 at a young age.

"I always felt I had a void in my life," Najim told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Monday.

She came to Canada when she was 14, married young and had six children by the age of 24. Before long she was a grandmother, too.

'I want to do something for me'

Now an empty nester, the hairdresser of 25 years says she wanted to do something for herself.

"Even though I have great children and … grandchildren, a wonderful, wonderful job that allowed me to meet amazing, wonderful people and have a good life from it — there was one thing missing: a high school diploma," she said.

"This is time for me. I want to do something for me."

Through her schooling back in Lebanon, Najm learned French but not English. Instead, she picked up the language in Canada at the kitchen table alongside her daughter.

"She was in Grade 1 and she would bring homework home and I couldn't wait to learn how to spell [in] English," she said.

That daughter is now 46, Najm said.

Her journey began by getting in contact with OCDSB's Continuing Education, located downtown on Albert Street.

After taking night classes after work, Najm earned an Ontario high school diploma and will be fully recognized as a high school graduate. (The General Educational Development (GED) test is no longer offered in Canada.)

While the prospect of being the oldest among her cohort was intimidating, Najm said she would have deeply regretted not going for it. Nor did she want to disappoint her children, who encouraged her to go back to school.

"It takes tremendous amounts of courage to reach out to a high school program for adults," said the school's counsellor Julia Bilenkis, who encouraged Najm to take on the challenge and helped her along the way.

"It somehow takes more courage to go back to high school than it does to go to college or university or potentially apprenticeship," Bilenkis said.

Math proved to be Najm's most difficult subject, but she ended up graduating with a student recognition award for her exceptional performance.

'Spark for learning'

She said she finished her final assignment after work, around 9 or 10 p.m., but didn't send it right away, resisting the urge until the morning, reviewing it once more to ensure she was satisfied with her work.

After submitting it, she sent an email to Bilenkis telling her she was officially a high school graduate.

"It's the reason why guidance counsellors and teachers join the profession that we do," Bilenkis said by phone earlier this week. "We want adults to succeed and students to succeed and reach their potential and reach their goals and move forward.

"And Hala is not finished," she continued. "The spark for learning that she always had is just now like a low-burning fire."

Najm was at work when Bilenkis called to tell her she'd won an award, and her clients applauded as she was on the phone.

Najm called it a dream come true.

"I can't believe it," she said. "It's actually done."