The hottest fashion trend right now is also one of the most difficult to get your hands on. It has a delicate, long hemline. It’s adorned with draping tassels of gold and is accompanied by a matching fashion-forward headdress reminiscent of ivy-filled buildings filled with some of the most brilliant of minds.

Want one? It will take you 12 years to get – maybe longer! That cap and gown are the culmination of years of hard work. It’s graduation season.

Everywhere you look, there are photos of young men and women receiving their diplomas, advertisements for graduation gifts and on social media – post after post of ceremonies and plans for college.

As children we were told, and now tell our children, that high school is a time for making memories that will last a lifetime – a gateway to our futures and all that we will achieve. For many in Arkansas, however, that wasn’t part of our high school memories. High school was tough. We struggled with homework, were picked on and bullied by classmates, maybe had little time to study because we had to work, hung out with the wrong crowd or found ourselves on an early journey of parenthood.

For 315,000 Arkansans, the struggles were too much. They never received their diplomas, never wore a cap and gown, never joined a processional to Pomp and Circumstance. Their educational journeys cut short by circumstances – some a fault of their own, some not.

In the end, does it really matter? The result is the same. Jobs are more difficult to get, telling your children school is important is hard to back up and supporting your family is a challenge. On average, Arkansans without a high school diploma earn $10,000 less a year than employees who graduated.

For generations, Arkansans who did not graduate high school had few opportunities to make a new reality – to be able to look their children in the eye and tell them with the sincerest of words that they CAN finish school, to be able to apply for a job without fearing the manager would ask for a school transcript or to be able to pay your bills and have a little something left.

That was until 2017. That October, The Excel Center® opened in Little Rock, the state’s first high school for adults. The goal, to remove those struggles that got in the way of education, to provide accessible education to Arkansans who want a second chance.

Since the doors opened just a year-and-a-half ago, six men and women have finally gotten to wear the robe they’d worked so many years to don. Another 18 will be presented diplomas June 15. Momentum is growing as Arkansans are learning there is help – it’s tuition-free with free drop-in childcare, free tutoring and free life coaching.

Those memories of high school cast with shadows of insecurity, doubt, frustration and confusion – replaced with bright classrooms filled with students who understand life’s difficulties as an adult, teachers who believe in you and will work with you as long as you need, a family who supports each other and relishes in each other’s accomplishments.

Earlier this year, Governor Asa Hutchinson signed a bill allowing Goodwill Industries of Arkansas to open more Excel Centers around the state, providing more adults an opportunity to rewrite their futures. Right now, the sale of donated items at Goodwill’s thrift stores is essentially the sole funding source for the school. So, in order to expand, more money is going to be necessary, but that’s something Goodwill is committed to achieving because its mission is its lifeblood – changing lives through education, training and employment.

So as this graduation season comes to an end, let’s not only congratulate the young high school seniors who are planning their futures after the classroom, let’s recognize the mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters who too have made an incredible achievement and are improving their lives and the lives of their families.

CONGRATULATIONS!