Irene Zuninga

Irene Zuninga, with her youngest daughter, recently earned a GED with help from UCare.

MONTGOMERY — For years Irene Zuniga would periodically open up a GED study book and soon after close it in frustration.

“It was just too hard,” the 45-year-old mother of four from Montgomery said.

Then an email arrived in her inbox this winter offering free GED support. Just a few weeks later, Zuniga earned her equivalent to a high school diploma thanks to a pilot program that has expanded to include several area counties.

Zuniga is among the first eight graduates of UCare’s GEDWorks initiative. Some low-income residents who receive MinnesotaCare and Medical Assistance through UCare can receive free help preparing for GED tests. The insurance provider also is paying the test fees.

A pilot launched last year included Blue Earth County. The service is now available to up to 200 residents of 18 Minnesota counties, including Blue Earth, Nicollet, Le Sueur, Faribault and Brown counties.

The program provides enrollees with an adviser who provides individualized help, said Vanessa MacCallum, senior account manager for GEDWorks. Advisers help participants study, register to take the tests and more.

GEDWorks was an existing program in which companies sponsor employee participation. UCare decided to join and offer the service to many clients as part of the health insurance provider’s exploration of how socioeconomic factors influence health, said Wendy Wicks, a communications representative for UCare.

MacCallum said the eight UCare graduates to date earned their diplomas in 93 days, almost twice as fast as the norm.

Zuniga achieved the milestone in less than a month after discovering that, despite her prior negative experiences attempting to study on her own, she had a lot more knowledge than she realized.

A native of Mexico who immigrated to Texas at age 12, she dropped out of school after eighth grade. She joined a relative in Minnesota more than 20 years ago and has worked at Seneca Foods for nearly as long.

A practice test meant to help her focus her studies showed Zuniga her life experiences had taught her all she needed to pass the GED tests. She took and passed the first two tests in mid-February and the last two tests nine days later.

While she ended up not needing any help studying, Zuniga said her adviser, Brenda Marquez Ramos, provided valuable assistance getting registered for the program and the tests. Her adviser also provided emotional support as she waited for her test results to come and contacted her with congratulations to inform her she had passed, Zuniga said.

She said earning her GED has removed her main barrier for employment opportunities. She said she’s happy at Seneca Foods and now is considering applying for new positions within the company for which she was not previously eligible.

Zuniga has these words for anyone else out there who has let fear dissuade them from seeking their GED:

“Go for it. Don’t be scared like me. It looks much harder than it is.”

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