Dafani Peralta said she had to drop out of high school when she became pregnant 12 years ago and didn't have the support of her mom to continue her education.
"I saw that my mom didn't even care about my education. She was really mad at me because I was pregnant," Peralta, now 28, told " Good Morning America." "It was really hard for me because I had my friends there and I wanted a better future for my daughter."
Peralta, of Paterson, New Jersey, was 15 when she gave birth to her daughter, Viarnneyra.
- 1February 10, 2020
- 2August 20, 2021
She and her daughter bounced between family members' homes, with Peralta struggling to find a job because she lacked day care for her daughter.
"Everything was new that first year, just the responsibility and trying to keep my baby alive," she said. "I wasn't really thinking about education that first year but as she got older, I wanted to [go back to school] to help her education at home."
When Viarnneyra entered pre-K, Peralta decided to work on finishing her high school degree, but by that time, she also had a 1-year-old son with her now-husband.
Peralta started at a school that also had day care for her son, but then faced additional obstacles, including becoming pregnant with her third child.
"I was struggling with the transportation because I'd have to walk my daughter to school and then wait at the bus stop for 45 minutes to an hour in snow and rain to get to school," she said. "While pregnant, for me, that was too difficult."
After Peralta gave birth, she said she returned to school but due to lack of child care availability, had to take her infant to a relative's house while she took her middle child with her to school.
"I had to take my daughter to school, walk with the stroller to the bus stop to go to drop one off and then take another bus and go to school [with the other child]," she said. "It was too much and sometimes I didn't have money for the bus."
Peralta tried to return to school again when her children got older, but she said she was beset by more obstacles, including one of her sons being diagnosed with autism.
"There were a lot of situations going on and I had to give up something and I gave up my education to focus on my kids," said Peralta, who would go on to have six children in total. "I really love my kids and enjoy being with them at home but I really felt that I wanted [an education] to go forward."
"Every time I'd go to get a job, they always ask for a high school diploma and I didn't have it," she said. "And I couldn't give [my kids] simple things like help them with their math or their homework because I don't understand. It was really frustrating."
This summer, with her kids now ages 12, 10, 8, 7, 5 and 4, Peralta decided that she was going to get her high school equivalency diploma, or GED, no matter what it took.
She said she realized now was the time to do it because, due to the coronavirus pandemic, she could take the courses at home, and not have to worry about commuting or finding full-time child care for her kids.
"I was asking God for this opportunity to do it from home, from the computer, and I thought it was an impossible thing to happen, but I asked anyways," said Peralta. "I thought this is the time and I'm not going to quit this time."
Peralta said she also felt like she received a sign that now was the time to do it when her sister-in-law volunteered to spend her vacation with the family so that she could watch the kids while Peralta studied and her husband worked.
Over the course of one month this summer, Peralta took online classes through the Spanish High School Equivalency (S-HSE) program at Paterson Adult & Continuing Education (P.A.C.E.) in New Jersey.
"They gave us one month of class that is normally taught in three months, so it was intensive," Peralta said. "I took it seriously because I thought this was the opportunity of my life. I thought I'm not going to take it for granted. Now that my sister-in-law was there, I had no excuses."
Peralta's teachers at P.A.C.E. say they noticed her determination right away.
"The first thing she said was, 'I am a 28-year-old woman with six children and my goal is to graduate,'" recalled Vilma Carranza, a teacher in the S-HSE program. "I noticed that the more work I gave her, the more effort she put into it. She really put her mind and her heart into what she was doing."
In July, Peralta was one of nine students out of an original class of 20 to graduate and earn her GED from the New Jersey Department of Education, according to Carranza.
"The program is very rigorous. It's not a simple, easy class to pass," said Carranza. "And she was superb."
Peralta said receiving her high school diploma not only fulfilled a lifelong personal goal for herself, but also helped her fulfill the goal of being an example for her children.
"I want them to see what their minds can do," she said. "I don't have to just say to go to school and graduate, I'm doing it."
The day that Peralta learned she had passed all of her exams, her oldest daughter Viarnneyra, with whom she became pregnant in high school, was the first to celebrate her mom's accomplishment.
"The day that I told her that I passed all of my tests, she said we had to go to a bakery and celebrate it because she saw all my hard work," said Peralta. "She said, 'I'd go to your room and you were studying. It was nighttime and you were still studying. I saw the hard work and now we have to celebrate it.'"
Now that Peralta has her GED, she is looking into taking online college courses and her husband, an electrician, is going to pursue his high school degree, also at P.A.C.E.
"We have struggled so much as a family," said Peralta, adding that now she and her husband can show their children "what's possible." "Now we have opportunity, but it took us a long [time]."