That flurry of social media posts about children’s’ first days of school, friends returning to college or even the rush of back-to-school bargains and sales tax holidays can be overwhelming.

It’s worse, though, when you’ve got that nagging feeling that you should be part of it, but you’re not.

Fortunately, for those wondering to themselves when they’ll finally make time to finish their high school diploma, it’s always back-to-school season at Iowa Western Community College’s HiSET program.

“It’s never too late to get this done,” said HiSET instructor Cheryl Goodwillie. “By getting this done, you’ve proven to yourself that you can meet a significant challenge in your life.”

Orientations are offered biweekly, and students can begin their High School Equivalence Test studies every seven weeks at Kinney Hall on Iowa Western’s Council Bluffs campus. Morning and evening classes are offered, and 14-week programs are offered regularly at the college’s Atlantic, Clarinda, Harlan and Shenandoah centers. A $25 registration fee covers classes through June 30 of each year.

Libby Woods, director of adult education, said students sign up for as many sessions as they need to master the material for five subjects: reading, writing, math, social studies and science. Students start with a pretest, and they receive direct instruction as they work toward earning their diploma.

“If life happens, they can by all means sit out a session and come back when they’re ready,” Woods said.

For Lynn Poe, the push to go back for her HiSET came from her children starting elementary school.

“I needed to set an example for them,” Poe said. “I needed this for me, too.”

Poe participated in Iowa Western’s most recent HiSET graduation, and she planned to complete Iowa Western’s pre-law program with the goal of furthering her studies until she can earn a J.D.

“I would like to be a lawyer,” Poe said. “I’d like to help women who are victims of domestic violence situations and children who have been abused.”

It took 16 years for Poe to overcome an abusive situation and find herself returning to school, she said. That lapse made it overwhelming, and she said she was discouraged at first, but she wanted to create a better life for herself and her children.

“My teacher and the one-on-one interaction and the small class sizes allowed me to ask questions and have them answered and be in an environment where I was not put down for not remembering the information or not quite getting it right away,” Poe said. “I have a sense of pride right now. My children are proud of me. My girls told me on the way here that they are proud of me for doing this.”

Poe said the experience was well worth the time and effort, once you get past being nervous.

Most students in Iowa Western’s program have jobs and family commitments that can make attending class a challenge, Woods said.

“They made the commitment to themselves,” Woods said. “They have really shown dedication and determination.”

Goodwillie said the exams are challenging, but they can be tackled by students from a wide variety of backgrounds and passing the exams provides a confidence boost. Students don’t have to go it alone, either, as instructors and tutors are happy to spend the time to help them learn.

“People are here to support you,” she said. “It does absolutely develop perseverance and resilience.”

Getting by without a high school diploma can also be daunting, though, so taking the time to invest in yourself can make a big difference. Mindy Crabb, a 2017 graduate of Iowa Western’s HiSET program, said she was working endless hours at a minimum wage job to try to support her children.

“I worked hard to support them, but finishing high school was always haunting me. I knew I had to go back and complete my HiSET,” Crabb said. “I worked hard every day. I attended class. I did my homework. And I asked questions.”

Crabb went on to pass the exam and begin studying nursing. Iowa Western hopes graduates follow in her footsteps by continuing their studies by using Education 2 Employment, a free program for Iowa residents to prepare for careers in education, business, technology, health and manufacturing.

Mark Stanley, vice president of economic and workforce development, said earning the HiSET credential is just the first step for students who are looking to improve their lives.

“Remember when you think about those next goals, we’ll be here ready to help you along the way,” Stanely said.

Tom Hanafan, the former Council Bluffs mayor and Pottawattamie County supervisor, told the college’s graduates at a May commencement that the investments they make in themselves ultimately are an investment in their communities.

“This community needs people to go to work. This community needs people to buy houses. This community needs people to live here and raise children,” Hanafan said. “You are the future of that.”

HiSET graduate Timothy Arterburn dropped out of Abraham Lincoln High School at age 16, after he had a child with his girlfriend.

“I was trying to work a couple jobs, support the family and try to do the schoolwork and all that at the same time, and it got to be a little bit too much,” Arterburn said. “Life basically got in the way.”

Arterburn tried attending the Kanesville Alternative Learning Center, but the self-study structure wasn’t a good fit for him. He tried Iowa Western’s old diploma program at the Omni Center, and that didn’t stick either. But after Iowa Western refreshed its approach to HiSET, he tried one more time.

“Once I heard that they actually have a class that you attend and a teacher who presents the class, that made me want to come back,” Arterburn said. “It was more like a high school experience, but not at the same time. The teachers treat you with great respect. They don’t look down on you.”

The instructors understand that life continues to get in the way sometimes. Even though it had been 20 years since he last did algebra, Arterburn stepped up to the challenge, got help and finished his exams.

He said he wanted to show his family, including his 2-year-old granddaughter, that it’s never too late.

“I wanted to show them that I can do it,” Arterburn said.

To learn more about the HiSET program, call 712-325-3266, email or visit

— Scott Stewart is a freelance journalist and communications consultant. This article was prepared on behalf of Iowa Western Community College’s Division of Economic and Workforce Development.

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