Need a High School Diploma? Talk to Me.
by Dom Fonce
September 12, 2023
A woman in a safety vest directs me to drive down a bumpy gravel road, then turn down an even bumpier grass field. It’s been years since I’ve been to the Canfield Fair. Today is sunny and a bit muggy. I’ll be working the MCCTC Adult Career Center’s table in the Floral Building. I’m in Blue Parking, directly across from Gate F. I have a long way to walk. In addition to working the table, I also want to test something out. My shirt is bright red with bright yellow font reading “Need a High School Diploma? Talk to Me.” I had it custom-made a week prior, but did not have an opportunity to wear it in public. I want to test if anyone actually will talk to me.
I’m wearing this shirt to promote Ohio’s Adult Diploma Program, a state initiative that gives a pathway to Ohio adults to graduate with a high school diploma and an industry credential. Fundamentally, this is guerrilla marketing, but it doesn’t feel cheap to me. On the contrary, it feels especially meaningful to me because most people without a high school diploma do not want to talk about it. The topic certainly won’t naturally come up in everyday conversation. And, many people without high school diplomas still need to work, pay their bills, and feed their families—they keep their lack of a diploma undercover, far out of their employer’s minds.
I walk down the dirt road as tires kick dust up into the air and the sun beats down. As a kid, I remember the fair being massive. As an adult, it feels smaller in radius, but absolutely packed with vendors, concessions, and rides. I pass through the gate, dodge cow pies on the concrete roads, and see a maze of people in front of me. As I work my way through them, I notice people glancing at me and my shirt. For me, I’ve always found it difficult not to want to read a shirt with a message on it, especially if the message contains a question. Being stared at by hundreds of people feels surreal. This is definitely not something I’m used to.
I make my way through the crowds. Lights flash from lemonade and sausage stands. A child screams from a swirling ride. I pass a collection of green benches, old timers eating food and sitting in the shade. I pass the live musicians playing on a small, wooden stage. I pass carnival games, a man throwing a ball at milk bottles, the smell of fries and elephant ears in the air. I pass building after building painted white with green roofs, until I find my building, #44, without anyone stopping to talk with me.
Half of the Floral Building is covered in greenery, showing off different types of plants, some in hangers, others growing in pots. The other half is filled with MCCTC tables, a row of student-built projects, like a motorized bicycle and a 3D model of the solar system, promoting MCCTC’s high school and Valley STEM. In the middle of the room is a large playpen filled with foam items. The STEM students battle remote control robots with fairgoers and their children. My table is in the front. A large TV cycles photos of Adult Career Center achievements and to its left sits a stand holding pamphlets and informational material. I see a stack of Adult Career Center business cards and stuff a few of them into my back pocket. Then I sit down. I will be here for the next several hours.
After an hour passes by, I get up to find a restroom and, after that, find something to eat. I see giant tractors lined up in a small grass field, women ushering horses into a barn. A dragonfly darts past my face and through a gazebo. I see a sign that reads “Steak Sandwiches” and walk towards it. There, a young man in a baseball cap takes my order. He asks me the usual questions, ones I’m sure he’s asked a thousand times. He says, “You want everything on that?” and “cash or card?” Then he stutters, asks me if I “want everything on that” a second time. Confused, I say, “Yes,” then realize he read my shirt. After my sandwich is made, I walk to the front, grab napkins and condiments. The man leans over the counter subtly, quietly says, “So, the thing is, I still needed five credits before I dropped out.”
The way this young man approaches the conversation isn’t surprising, but, in the moment, does surprise me. My theory that a t-shirt reading “Need a High School Diploma? Talk to Me.” would erase the uncomfortable conversation barrier for those without a diploma appears to be true. However, the slyness in which he broaches the subject, I suppose, is the most surprising. Truly, he does not want others to hear us talking. I give him my pitch for the Adult Diploma Program, tell him, “It doesn’t matter how many credits you have. All you have to do is complete our program and you’ll earn your diploma.” He thinks, nods his head. I give him one of the cards from my back pocket. I ask for his name, then shake his hand. He says he’ll give us a call.
I spend the rest of my night at the Adult Career Center’s table. I eat, watch the STEM students build and battle robots, pass out pamphlets. By the end of the night, I wish I’d have stepped outside more, walked around within the crowds, tried to make myself as visible as possible. However, my job was to work the table, and I did so. But, as I gather my things and begin heading to my car, I can’t stop thinking of the young man. Simply wearing a shirt, having a conversation, and being knowledgeable has opened the door to potentially change someone’s life. Overall, my experiment feels extremely satisfying and successful.
As I pull out of the grass field, towards home, I know I’ll make an effort to wear this shirt in public as often as possible. The reality of U.S. high school graduation rates is that they have begun shrinking across the country. This is mainly due to the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020 and the switch to online learning in 2021. For low-income students and students with disabilities, 2020-2021 was especially hard, as those demographics dropped out at higher rates.
For the public, it is important not to stigmatize or judge these people, as the circumstances surrounding dropping out are typically tragic. Instead, be informed about the options for those without a high school diploma, especially MCCTC’s Adult Diploma Program, and don’t be afraid to share the resources you have to those who need it. For those without a high school diploma, talk to me. MCCTC’s Adult Career Center is dedicated to help you receive funding, support, and training throughout your Adult Diploma Program process. Email me at dominic.fonce@MahoningCTC.com or Jodi Glass at Jodi.Glass@MahoningCTC.com. Additionally, feel free to call our office at 330-729-4100.
Read another story
Dom Fonce is a Marketing Content Writer for Mahoning County Career and Technical Center Adult Career Center. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Youngstown State University and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the NEOMFA. He has published two books of poetry. His work can be found at domfoncepoetry.com.