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Daughter draws inspiration from mother who will graduate from college, too

Paul O'Neil left and Chantel Batuk (Erin Nagy photo)

Paula O'Neil, 52, never thought she'd go back to get her high school diploma, let alone a college degree.

That all changed when her daughter, Chantel Batuk, 31, dared her to get her GED.

"I was in the service industry for seven or eight years doing different jobs and I had to really think about, you know, what was I gonna do after this?" Batuk told ABC News. "And there was one thing standing in my way which was, you know, the GED, before you could go to college. And I knew it was something that my mom also needed to do."

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"She did not wanna go do it by herself," O'Neil told ABC News about going back to school. "She's like, 'If you do it, I'll do it.'"

O'Neil agreed to enroll with her daughter in GED classes through a local adult literacy program.

"I think as a mom I would do anything to get her in there," O'Neil explained. "And it was, like, all right. I'm doin' it."

So the mother and daughter found themselves back in the classroom, but it wasn't easy.

"I never thought I would go back," O'Neil said. "And I was really scared. A ninth-grade education, now -- is like equivalent to a sixth-grader. And then being 52 years old has also been a challenge."

Once Batuk passed her GED, O'Neil thought she would quit. Once again, Batuk pushed her mother to keep going.

"She [Batuk] said if I didn't finish my GED program, she wouldn't follow through with the enrollment," O'Neil recalled. "So I stayed. It took me eight months to pass the GED program."

O'Neil and Batuk's academic endeavors inspired other family members to go back to school. O'Neil's son and Batuk's fiance joined the mother-daughter pair in enrolling at Fulton-Montgomery Community College.

They all graduated together in May 2015.

"When you're walking across a stage and usually you're lookin' for your parents out in the audience," Batuk said. "It was different, instead of lookin', you know, for everyone, as you're leaving, they're there."

There, by each other's sides once again, mother and daughter enrolled in University at Albany's School of Social Welfare.

"The University at Albany has a really competitive undergraduate social welfare program with really tough admissions requirements," said Alyssa Lotmore, the school's assistant to the dean for alumni outreach and engagement. "The fact that Paula and Chantel not only got into this program, but excelled, is really amazing."

O'Neil and Batuk excelled with their academics, and in their on-campus involvement giving back to their school and their community. Batuk thrived in the Peer Career Adviser program and O'Neil worked a crisis hotline through the Middle Earth Peer Assistance Program.

"This program has many connections to both my mother and I's professional development on campus and more personally for me in how I am able to give back to my community which is low-income, low-education," Batuk told ABC News. "The skills I have learned in the program I have used to help my peers in the community as well as on the campus."

O'Neil and Batuk were honored with certificates of appreciation at the Middle Earth Peer Student Recognition Dinner last month.

"When I walked into the school it changed my entire worldview," O'Neil said. So when it started out being the first semester for the kids, the second semester it was really all about me, and it has changed my life completely. The way I look at the world, the way I see things, the opportunities."

Mother and daughter graduated with honors together on May 20. They both graduated with GPAs above 3.9.

"My mom is so inspiring," Batuk said. "And she's really just been a testament to me that, you know, it is never too late. It is never -- things aren't out of reach.

O'Neil was recently accepted into the Advanced Standing in MSW program, an accelerated program that is completed in one year instead of the traditional two.

"Four years ago I would have told you I had a ninth-grade education and a cleaning company," she said. "So no, I wouldn't have seen this. I'm surprised. I'm shocked. And I'm scared every single step. But my family is walking beside me."

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