By Cody Schmitz
CONCORDIA— Jatoria McGirt has officially enrolled in classes at Cloud County Community College after receiving her GED earlier this month and began competing for the T-Birds on March 16 at the start of the outdoor season.
In one meet, the Southwestern College Invite, McGirt helped the 4X100-meter relay team to the 12th fastest time in the country at 47.97 seconds and posted another national qualifying time in the 100-meter dash, crossing the finish line in 11.97 seconds.
But receiving her GED certification marks another important finish line for McGirt, who began her journey to a degree equivalent almost two years ago.
“When I got the GED test results back, my only thought was: ‘I did it,'” McGirt said. “That race is finally finished. I can move forward. It took so much pressure off of me as someone who didn’t get my high school diploma.”
Before coming to Cloud County, McGirt lived in West Palm Beach, Florida. McGirt said that growing up, she was supported by family, but her environment was challenging.
“My grandmother raised me in a place called Fremd Village. It was pretty rough,” McGirt said. “It wasn’t a normal neighborhood where kids could just play. There were a lot of aggressive people. A lot of fighting and a lot of shooting.”
McGirt said she relied on sports to push her through the hard times.
“I grew up playing sports like street football. Football is one of my favorite sports, but as a girl, I couldn’t rely on it. So, I tried track and I fell in love with it.”
It wasn’t long before McGirt was excelling as a sprinter. During her senior year of high school, she qualified for the Florida state track meet in the 100-meter dash. But following this success, McGirt was unable to graduate at the end of her senior year. She transferred to a charter school, but still did not get her diploma.
“Things got rocky, and I stopped going to class,” McGirt said. “I was going through a lot of personal stuff that ended up throwing me off. I just stopped going completely.”
McGirt said it was hard to find support, because education was not a priority for her family.
“I’m the first one in my family to ever go to college,” McGirt said. “School isn’t something my family has a history of completing.”
It was McGirt’s high school track coach, Randell King, who gave her the direction she craved.
“Coach King helped me make the decision to get my GED and come to Cloud,” McGirt said. “It was too late for me to get my diploma at a regular public school, and I knew I had to make a decision that would push me forward. I want to thank Coach King for helping me. I needed someone to show me a different, more positive way of living. He was my coach and my father in one.”
Coming to Cloud County Community College was a big step for McGirt, who said she had never been away from her family before she moved in the summer of 2015.
“I thought I was going to come to Cloud, get my GED right then and there, and then run track and go on about my precious little life,” McGirt said. “But things didn’t go the way I planned.”
McGirt quickly passed three out of the four tests she needed to get her GED, but the one test she couldn’t seem to pass was the social studies exam. According to an official GED report, Jatoria took the social studies exam nine times.
“I was taking the same type of test for 18 months straight. The pressure of failure made me want to give up. I knew that I couldn’t be enrolled in college classes because I kept missing the mark. My lowest point was when I realized I couldn’t run track — what I truly love to do — because of one little test.”
This winter, McGirt took a break from studying and visited her family in Florida. But, according to McGirt, what she experienced at home fundamentally changed her motivations for completing the test.
“I saw my mom really struggling financially,” McGirt said. “We didn’t know how we were going to get through the next day. I was also losing family members and seeing my dad go to jail. It was a lot of pain. I realized I didn’t want to get comfortable feeling like that. I had to make a decision: either give it my all and pass my final test or continue to have one foot in and one foot out. I knew that I had to rise above that.”
When McGirt returned from Florida, she felt motivated to finally pass her social studies exam. She had to pass the test so she could enroll in classes and join the rest of the CCCC track team, or she would have to return to Florida permanently.
Ted Schmitz, the head women’s track coach at Cloud County, acted as a close mentor for McGirt as she worked to get her certification. Schmitz said he was impressed with McGirt for managing the pressure she felt while taking her final social studies test.
“Because she had invested so much, it was like — what would you tell her if she failed? It was her very last chance,” Schmitz said. “If she didn’t pass the test, she would not be eligible to run track at Cloud. The pressure was amazing.”
McGirt said that in those stressful moments, what helped her was to approach the test from a new angle.
“I had to dig deep into the roots of what the social studies test was about,” McGirt said. “I made sure I understood the building blocks first. The three branches of government, supply and demand, U.S. wars — I got comfortable with the basics. I did it my way, and I learned so much by doing it.”
In total, McGirt took 17 official social studies practice exams. Debbie Kearn, the GED director for Cloud County, said she also worked through at least eight GED prep books over the last 18 months — some of them two or more times each.
“Jatoria spent many hours in our GED classroom,” Kearn said. “She would come in the morning to study, break for lunch, come back and work until dinner, and then come back again — often until 9 p.m. I can honestly say that I have never had a student work as hard and long as Jatoria.”
When she took her social studies test for the last time, McGirt said she felt more confident than ever before. McGirt got her test results a few hours after the exam. She had passed.
“The two years I spent getting my GED were the toughest years of my life, but I don’t regret it because it made me who I am right now,” McGirt said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I knew I had to beat the odds, and I knew that it would happen at the perfect time — God’s time.”
By passing the GED, McGirt says she can now focus on her future. Her next goal is to get a college degree as she takes her running career as far as she can.
McGirt also says that studying social studies has opened up new career paths for her. “Politics and history have now become major interests,” McGirt said. “As I studied, the concepts became more interesting to me. I’m excited to see what possibilities are out there.”
Coach Schmitz said he witnessed McGirt grow through her struggles.
“I saw Jatoria get excited about the knowledge she was gaining,” Schmitz said. “As she learned, she only wanted to learn more. She started asking deeper questions about social studies and her place in the world. She grew spiritually, too. I saw a complete change in Jatoria, and it inspires me.”
For those facing trials similar to that of McGirt’s, she offered this advice.
“I would tell them to never give up. No matter what. Do not give up.”
McGirt says she could not have accomplished everything that she has without the support system available to her at CCCC. She specifically wishes to thank coach Ted Schmitz, Debbie Kearn, and Janice Stangel, the coordinator for the Success Skills Center.
“I think that any other school I could have gone to would have sent me home,” McGirt said. “They would have given up on me. But Cloud went through it all with me. They are my team, and I couldn’t do it without my team.”