Welcome to Mile Markers, a bimonthly newsletter about rural higher education. I’m Nick Fouriezos, an Open Campus national reporter who grew up at the crossroads of suburban Atlanta and the foothills of Appalachia.

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A biweekly newsletter about higher education and rural America. By Nick Fouriezos.

Postcards: How community affects education outcomes in rural Florida

A rural Florida community at the edge of the Everglades is faced with a significant workforce retraining challenge that, if navigated right, could bring tremendous economic opportunity. 

A third of Hendry County’s working-age adults lack a high-school diploma, and almost half speak a language other than English at home, among the highest in Florida. 

The area is also on the cusp of a major infrastructure project, which brings with it a demand for people with engineering and manufacturing skills. But before local leaders can prepare residents for those jobs , educators must first help them earn their GEDs and learn English.

This week, Open Campus published a special report with the Associated Press exploring how Hendry County is preparing for the 1,400 high-skilled jobs a new $300 million airport project could bring.

For this newsletter, I would like to take you behind the scenes to the adult education center in LaBelle, the 5,000-person county seat in Hendry, to meet some of the students I wasn’t able to feature in our piece.

Many are native Spanish speakers who are working jobs or have kids at home, which has forced some creative solutions from their instructor, Silvia Gullet, who was born in Peru before starting her teaching career in Florida two decades ago. 

She started a WhatsApp group so students could organize carpooling or split childcare duties. 

If students don’t show up to class, she texts them to figure out the problem, and doesn’t settle for easy excuses.

The result? A community of students and their instructor helping each other overcome the hurdles that typically stop adults like them from getting the training they sorely need to improve their careers and lives.


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Más. Del Rozio Hernandez Rivas

When I arrive at the adult education center, Más. Del Rozio is sitting at a table with her 5-year-old daughter Ariadne, who plays games on her tablet while dressed in a purple tutu. 

Growing up, she initially attended public schools in Mexico, but felt like the education wasn’t great. “Teachers didn’t go every day, they would just skip school, and there were a lot of public holidays,” she says.

Despite transferring to a private school in Cuernavaca, Mexico, she wasn’t able to complete her high school diploma after arriving in the United States as a senior. Life happened: She got married to a fireman here in Florida, and she had her son, who is now 11, as well as her daughter.

A little over two years ago, she tried to finish her GED at this same adult education center. The previous instructor wasn’t a native Spanish speaker, which made it difficult for her to learn at times. He was kind, though, and let her bring her then-toddler daughter to the classes. But Ariadne kept crying and she didn’t want to be a distraction.

It wasn’t until last September that she finally felt ready to try again, and decided to enroll when she learned the new instructor was fluent in Spanish. 

“That’s an advantage for me, because sometimes in the online courses, they try to teach you something, and I think they use Google Translate for some of it, because the words don’t actually exist,” she says.

Thankfully, she lives just five minutes away, but she sees how hard it is for some of her classmates to continue their education. 

“Some of the students, they ride in on a bicycle from 45 minutes away, even when it’s raining, and you know the Florida heat,” she says. “We had a couple of guys who were coming who didn’t currently have any work, and the teacher bought everybody lunch because she knew nobody had the money.”

Más. Del Rozio currently works doing painting jobs a few days a week in Naples, which requires a two-hour commute. She hopes to complete certificates in entrepreneurship and finance after finishing her GED courses, which would allow her to hopefully get other jobs closer by. 

She and her husband create concrete statues and paintings, all sorts of things, lions and eagles, angels on flower pots. She would be happy to expand that business, but will be content to just not have to take a bad job in order to stay nearby.

“I want to find something closer, and not have to work at McDonald’s,” she says.

Marisela Rodríguez Sebastian

Marisela was born in Mexico and briefly lived in McRae, Georgia before moving to work at a farm in Clewiston, Florida. After passing her ESOL exams and learning Quickbooks in a finance course, Marisela was able to handle the accounting for her husband’s small construction business, helping him grow revenue from around $250,000 to more than $600,000 in just three years.

“It’s allowed me to help my husband and his business, and give my kids a good example of how to live,” she says.

Lizi Romero Romero

Lizi has been fighting for years to complete her education, ever since leaving El Salvador as a highschooler in 2018. She arrived in Houston with credits from her prior school, but not all of them transferred. 

Graduating became even more complicated by the fact that she hadn’t completed a year-long U.S. history course required by the state of Texas, a class that her peers had already completed the prior year.

It didn’t help that she didn’t speak any English when she first arrived, and her school didn’t have the resources to help her.

“I couldn’t even answer when they asked me my name,” the 23-year-old says.

Even without getting her GED, Lizi was able to land a Spanish-language administrative and accounting job for the Florida-based construction company Global Disaster Recovery.

While that gave her some financial stability, she always felt awkward about her English speaking ability and not having a high school diploma. One day, though, a coworker who had graduated from the Hendry County ESOL program told her about the instructor who understood the challenges adult students like them were facing.

“It’s really helpful when you have someone that you know you can trust,” she says. “You don’t have to be afraid to tell them that you’re lost. Unlike when I was in Texas, when I say, ‘I don’t understand this,’ she is able to help.”

Esmerelda Maciel

The second youngest of eight kids, Esmerelda was born in Naples and raised here in LaBelle. In her twenties, she left for Mississippi with a friend, and ended up working at a cotton factory. Other jobs came over the years: housekeeping, odd-end work. Her twenties were spent chasing different careers, until she came back home to take care of her sick mother. 

Now in her mid-thirties, she has tried to earn her GED many times, but timing and circumstances never worked out. It didn’t help that she didn’t get much family support: nobody else in her family had ever graduated with their high school diploma, much less pursued postsecondary education.

It wasn’t until her mother had passed that she decided to try once more, and she finally finished with her GED last fall. Now she hopes to study in Fort Myers at a nail technician school, so she can run her own cosmetology business.

“I didn’t quit this time: I had Silvia and she was just pushing and pushing me to finish. If I had that type of person pushing me before, I may have gotten that diploma years ago,” she says.

Read the full story here.

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Open Campus national reporter covering the role of college in rural America.