Angel Rodriguez was stuck, living in the projects in Camden, bouncing among low-paying jobs, struggling to support himself and his disabled mother.
He had tried to find jobs that pay above minimum wage - more than the few dollars he earned working at grocery stores or as a cook in a hotel - but his resumé had an obvious gap.
"Every job I would go apply to, they would go, 'Do you have a high school diploma?' " said Rodriguez, 22. "I would have tell them no, because I'm not the type of person to lie on my application."
Now, thanks to a new program offered through state and county libraries, Rodriguez, who dropped out of Camden High in 2010, is taking high school courses online at his own pace, working toward a bona fide high school diploma - and new opportunities.
The Camden County Library System is offering 35 full-tuition scholarships to Career Online High School, a virtual program accredited in Florida that grants high school diplomas. The state Department of Labor and Workforce Development is funding the scholarships through the New Jersey State Library.
"When I received the full scholarship, I was just crying because I was just so excited I didn't have to pay for school," Rodriguez said. "This is a second chance at life. This is a better chance at life for my mother and me, and to say I actually accomplished something with my life."
Another student, Christine Storey, also hopes the online high school will lead to better jobs.
Storey, 34, left what is now Winslow Township High School in 1998 as a sophomore after becoming pregnant.
The oldest of her four children had special needs, and taking care of the children kept Storey from completing the night classes she had tried to take, she said.
But Storey still wanted to get her diploma, and this year she was in the library when she saw a flier advertising Career Online High School. She signed up and, around Halloween, began the online courses.
Storey's oldest son is now a high school sophomore. She hopes she can inspire her children, maybe even to become the first in their family to attend college.
"No matter what happens in life, you can always still accomplish your dreams and your goals - no matter how old you are, no matter what happens," Storey said she has told her son.
"When he has a hard time, I say to him, 'Look, just do your best, that's all I expect.' "
About a dozen spots in the virtual school remain open through the Camden County Library System. Five other library systems in the state also offer the program. Students are accepted in rolling admission until the seats have been filled, or until March. Camden County residents can apply online at camdencountylibrary.org/career-online-high-school.
All course work is Web-based, and the program lasts up to 18 months for 18 credits. The lessons can be accessed at any time and are self-paced: Storey works on a lesson every night, spending about two hours at a time; Rodriguez spends five to six hours a day, treating it as a full-time commitment.
Rodriguez said he hoped to finish around Feb. 5, when he turns 23.
"That'll be the best birthday present ever," said Rodriguez, who wants to obtain various professional certificates, find a well-paying job, and move with his mother out of the Crestbury Apartments housing projects.
"Now I have this second chance," he said. "I'm taking it. I'm pushing forward."