September 29, 2017

At age 96, Leona Paulus earned her high school diploma, and finally got to be a nurse (for a day)

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Aug. 28, 2019.

    Just one month after "beat[ing] the odds" and getting her high school diploma, 96-year-old Leona Paulus last week got to live out her childhood dream of becoming a nurse—at least for one day.

    The 96-year-old high school graduate

    Paulus, born in 1921, wanted to be a nurse since she was a child. However, when she was 13, she had to drop out of school to work on her uncle's farm during the Great Depression. She tried to get her GED in the 1960s, but after that effort fell through, Paulus thought she had to give up on her dreams.

    However, earlier this year, Glen Donelson, the president and CEO of Mid-Atlantic States Career and Education Center (MASCEC), met Paulus at the Pittsgrove Senior Center, where Paulus frequented for a nutrition program. After hearing her story, Donelson insisted that she take the state's high school proficiency tests, called the HiSet Exam, to get her diploma.

    "Glen had coached me to take it," Paulus said. "I thought I was too old to pass it," but Paulus said that Donelson told her that "if you take it at your age and you pass it, you will help children." She said, "When he said I could help children, that was when I changed my mind and decided I would do it because I love to help people. I always wanted to be a nurse anyway and love to help people."

    Paulus studied for the exam with the help of counselors at MASCEC and passed with flying colors. "Out of a possible 20 points, the lowest she got was an 18," Donelson said.

    Nurse for a day

    Since taking the test, Paulus has become somewhat of a minor celebrity at her senior center, receiving correspondence from President Trump, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), as well as a joint proclamation from members of the state legislative chambers. But the biggest surprise came on Sept. 21, when MASCEC and the Salem County Health Department teamed up to make Paulus an honorary nurse for the day at Pittsgrove Senior Center.

    Over the course of the day, Paulus helped providers conduct health screenings by handing out paperwork. "[Paulus] had the get up and go to follow her dream and get her high school diploma, so knowing she wanted to be a nurse, we wanted to help that aspect to make her dreams come true," Bonnie Hogate, a nursing supervisor for the health department, said. "We were very happy to be a part of that."

    Patricia DiPasquele, Paulus' daughter, echoed the sentiment. "She always wanted to be a nurse, since I've been little she always said she wanted to be a nurse. [Donelson and Tracy Wiggins, one of Paulus' tutors] made it come true."

    Separately, reflecting on the event, Donelson added, "I think it's going to give inspiration to others [who] are younger than she that you can do anything if you make your mind up to do it" (Franklin, NJ.com, 8/2; Burney,  Philadelphia Inquirer, 7/28; Kerr, SNJ Today, 9/21).

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