Real Talk: Dr. Rachel DeVaughan’s HSE Success Story

March 30, 2016 Jennifer Brandt

Real Talk: Dr. Rachel DeVaughan’s HSE Success Story 

What goals and ambitions do you have for your future?

Without a high school equivalency, those aspirations may seem out of reach. But with hard work and dedication, your dreams can become a reality.

Dr. Rachel DeVaughan started her career by earning her HSE. A high school dropout turned Ph.D. recipient, Dr. DeVaughan had the ambition to make her life better.

Proving that past challenges and setbacks don’t have to dictate your future, we’re excited to share Dr. Rachel DeVaughan’s inspiring and accomplished HSE success story with you today.

  1. Why did you drop out of high school?

I dropped out of high school for several reasons: 1) My mother was going through another divorce, suffered from some emotional issues, and didn’t work, so she needed me to be able to work full-time so I could help financially; 2) There was never enough money for me to actually participate in any of the extracurricular activities in which many high school students participate. My family had moved to a new area (we moved all the time), and I was never able to connect with my teachers or other students due to the financial and emotional pressures at home.

The thought of dropping out and not having to endure another day in an environment where I didn’t fit in appealed to me. I wouldn’t have to worry about what clothes to wear, not being part of the “in” crowd, not being able to participate in any school activities, and I would be able to work to finally have necessities in the house.

  1. What grade did you drop out of high school?

I dropped out at the beginning of my 11th grade year.

  1. When did you earn your HSE? How much time passed between dropping out of high school and earning your HSE?

I [earned my] HSE when I was 21. So 4-5 years passed from the time I dropped out until I took the test.

  1. What made you decide to earn your high school equivalency? What was your motivation?

I decided to earn my high school equivalency for a couple of reasons. The first reason was I had an aunt who strongly encouraged me to obtain [my HSE]. She was the one who set up the appointment and registered me [for the test].

The second reason is pretty corny. All of my life I dreamt of working in a college office, wearing a blue suit to work, and being “important.” The negative stigma I carried around within me from dropping out of high school went deep within, and I knew I didn’t want to fit the “high school dropout” mold.

  1. As you studied and prepared to earn your HSE, what challenges did you face?

I struggled in math during my high school years. I know now it was not because I suffered from a learning disability or was academically low-achieving. One concept people need to remember is that students who do not come from an environment where education is embraced and encouraged can easily fall behind other students because there is no one at home who can help tutor them. 

As the plethora of responsibilities of home grew, my ability to juggle school and home life was hindered. Math was the subject I seemed to struggle with the most. Naturally, when I started studying for [my high school equivalency], math was my weakest area. I had already failed Algebra I and never took Geometry or Algebra II in high school. I wasn’t sure if I could pass the math part of the test.

  1. How did you overcome these challenges?

I honestly didn’t have a plan in place to overcome this challenge. I didn’t have anyone who could tutor me in math to bring my skill set up to the level I needed it to be at to successfully pass the HSE. So I studied 6th and 7th grade material to refresh my brain.

I [also] overcame studying and preparation challenges by working daily on my assignments. I also had a son in 3rd grade at the time and started using his textbooks and workbooks to work out of. Although [my math skills weren’t] as low as a 3rd grade level, I knew if I started brushing up on skills I understood, then I might be more successful with harder math skills. 

My son also had fraction tiles, multiplication and division cards, and activity sheets that he used in class, and I used these to help me understand those basic skills. I was also extremely determined that by God I was going to learn fractions. I wanted and craved knowledge in math.

  1. Where did you earn your undergraduate degree and what did you major in?

I was 28 years old when I mustered up enough courage to walk onto a college campus and register for school. I enrolled at Leeward Community College in Waianae, Hawaii in the most basic developmental education courses for math. It was during these courses that I realized I really wasn’t stupid in math. I actually loved the subject; however, years of struggling in school and negative outside environmental factors had hindered my ability to perceive that I could do well in this subject area.

After [earning an Associate’s degree and] graduating with honors (which I was able to do in a year by taking up to 24 credit hours a semester), I enrolled at Faulkner University and received a Bachelor of Business Administration degree.

  1. Where did you earn your master’s degree and want did you study?

I started working on an MBA, but I decided that I wanted to go into education and help other students who struggled academically. I knew there were many students out there who did not have a solid support system at home, and I wanted to provide that for them. I changed programs of study and received a Master’s of Education degree from William Carey University.

  1. Where did you earn your doctoral degree and what was your dissertation on?

When I decided to go into education, I went and spoke to my daughter’s principal who highly encouraged me to start as a teaching assistant (TA) before making the transition from business into education. 

I taught for a total of 9 ½ years:

  • 4th grade Math at Agricola Elementary in Lucedale, MS
  • 7th and 8th grade Math and Pre-Algebra at George County Middle School in Lucedale, MS
  • High school Algebra I at Ocean Springs High School, Ocean Springs, MS

I reminded myself of my dream of working at a college, so after teaching, I went back to William Carey University and received a Doctorate of Philosophy in Higher Education Administration. 

I never forgot my own academic struggles in math and how I desperately needed support during my journey [to obtaining] my HSE and developmental courses. Because those adult basic education and developmental education courses were so incredibly beneficial to me, I chose to focus [my dissertation] on students’ perceptions on the effectiveness of developmental math courses.

  1. What goals and ambitions do you have for your future?

I have many goals and ambitions for my future in education. Some include bringing awareness to our legislators on the importance of adult education programs and that many of our students who have dropped out don’t always do so because they didn’t care about their education. 

It is very hard for students who continuously face academic, socioeconomic, emotional, or behavioral challenges to perceive they can be successful. I absolutely love speaking to students and administrators in sharing my own story and struggles and empowering them to believe in those dreams they hold deep within. I identify with students who have lived in an environment of poverty, emotional instability, violence in the home, low morale, ignorance, and minimal support. Many students who drop out come from an environment where the future is never discussed. [Future] goals and plans [are] not fostered or spoken about, so many students are aimlessly walking around with no idea on how to change the course of their lives. 

Another goal for me is to actively mentor others who have struggled. I speak at a prison in central Mississippi to the female population encouraging them and providing life skills that will be necessary once they are released. My goal is to become a part of the adult education program there and help prepare imprisoned women for their HSE. 

I would love to see a more active role with the HSE companies and/or programs within the prisons of our country. There is a high percentage of our prison population that has not received their HSE; although they are in prison serving time for the crimes they committed, many will only repeat bad behaviors unless new skills and patterns are put in place.

I would also love to serve on as many committees as possible that promote the same ideals I share for our adult education students. This is not to sound cliché or egotistical; I simply want to be a part of this movement. I believe my own struggles have given me an insight into why many of our students drop out and I know I can make a difference.

  1. What advice or tips do you have for future TASC test takers and anyone looking to earn their high school equivalency?

Don’t let the past dictate your future. I spent 20 years working for McDonald’s restaurants (all over the U.S./world) before I was able to finish my B.B.A. and move in a new direction.

Although many challenges have come your way, look for ways to intrinsically motivate yourself to achieve this first important step in your future by taking [the TASC test and earning your] HSE. Your future can be as successful as you make it. Is it hard work? Absolutely! Did I wonder if I would ever finish? Yes! It took me 17 years from the time I started developmental/remedial courses to walking across the stage with my Ph.D., but I never once allowed myself to give up. You can’t either!

  1. What’s the best advice you’ve received in your life?

Years of negative comments and environmental factors are hard for any student to overcome. Someone very important in my life, who I think is extremely successful, once asked me, Why not you, Rachel?  Why not you?” This catapulted me into becoming more active in my own pursuit of happiness and diligently facing the fears of the past to ensure a brighter tomorrow for myself. Why not me when it came to working towards a Ph.D.? 

  1. Any additional comments?

During my years in education, I earned many awards for serving as an excellent teacher who cared. My students ranked in the top for highest scores on the state tests that were necessary for school accreditation.

In reflecting back over my own life and its struggles, I truly believe that my own story ignited the flame within me to serve students who have walked a similar journey. Every year, on the first day of school, I would share my own story with my students and promised them they had entered a safe haven when they entered my classroom. For many, this was all that was needed for them to branch out of those shells they lived in and let down their guard. The growth that occurred in that classroom each year proved over and over to me that students must perceive they can be successful.  


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