Against the Odds: Amber Koonce

Published 2:19 pm Wednesday, July 10, 2019

For some people in our community, the chance of going to college or forming a stable household is all but impossible. Combinations of poverty, family upheavals and access to healthcare all but guarantee they will continue this cycle. Community college can be an intervention, part of a wider social safety net, like health insurance and Pell grants, to help individuals who face unexpected challenges or who have the had the odds stacked against them, to meet their personal goals and to be a productive part of family and community.

Amber Koonce has faced an entirely precarious childhood, parents’ health crises, developments in her own family and a desire to change careers. In spite of these obstacles, Koonce has found success at Beaufort County Community College.

Koonce is currently working toward an associate degree in medical office administration, and she plans to get certified as a registered medical assistant through the Division of Continuing Education. This combination will enable her to do everything at a doctor’s office outside of nursing and doctoring, including scheduling, coding, basic clinical skills and filing insurance. These roles are essential functions at a healthcare facility, and offer a good opportunity for people who are interested in healthcare jobs other than nursing.

Initially, Koonce wanted to get out of Beaufort County.

“I wanted to leave behind my history,” she said.

It was the guidance of the former BCCC professor Matthew Lincoln, the grandfather of her oldest son, who led her to the college.

“With his guidance, I got to the right place and on the right path,” she said.

With three children at home, Jayden (5), Michael (4) and Kendall (2), she made the choice to stay with them and take classes online. It also helped her to avoid other students who might know her history.

“I do most of my homework when they’re going to bed. Sometimes they sit right beside me, and I can read out of a chapter. It’s pretty amazing how they listen,” Koonce said.

Her husband, Garry, who currently works as a welder with Yates, a mining contractor company, pitches in so she can complete her homework.

Koonce had a precarious childhood. She first met her father at 15. Growing up, she lived with aunts, uncles, her mother, her grandmother, foster mothers and a boyfriend at different points, changing settings at least every two years. At 14, her mother walked out.

“I was at school. I showed up, and she packed her things and left that night,” she said.

She went to stay with neighbors who had watched her often when her mother was not around.

“She­­­ — if anything — showed me exactly how to be a mother, in ways that she didn’t,” Koonce said.

In spite of these obstacles, and a frightening atopic pregnancy at 16, she successfully finished high school on time.

“I was not the best student. I was bad,” she said. “I didn’t focus. I didn’t really care. I think it had something to do with the way I was raised. If I could go back and change my high school years, I would in a heartbeat, but I can’t. But I can fix it by earning my college degree.”

When her parents were around, they presented Koonce with health problems that required her attention. Koonce had taken care of her mother since she was 10 years old. Her mother’s failing health required her to make weekly, multi-day trips to Rocky Mount and Greensboro.

When her father did come back into her life, she slowly warmed to him.

“I took advantage of the time we did have, and let him in,” she said.

During this time, her family started expanding, and both parents proved themselves to be capable grandparents. Unfortunately, in the case of her father, their time was short. In the fall of 2018, after years of poor health, she lost him to pneumonia.

That fall brought the perfect storm. She was still working in childcare, planning a wedding with Garry, wrapped up in legal problems, raising three children and taking classes at BCCC. A literal storm — Hurricane Florence — and a figurative one — the devastating loss of her father — flooded her life.

She had to take a step back. She withdrew from classes for the semester and left her childcare job. She leaned on her advisors, professors Jim Hill and Carol Ingalls, along with Serena Sullivan, during that time.

“They’re genuinely concerned, and if there is a situation they listen,” she said. “They have motivated me. They don’t know it, but they have kept me alive. They have kept the spark there where it wouldn’t die. They have kept me in school.”

She returned to the college ready to focus. About online classes, she said, “It was almost awkward when I would come to campus, because people would see me as a new student. Online is not easy. You really have to devote your time to it. If you’re going to do online, don’t take advantage because you have all this free time to yourself. I would give 30 hours a week to my classes.”

She would come to campus and use the library as a social space and come to get in-person help from her professors. She thinks it is important for online students to come to campus for events.

“Come out to the college, even if it’s just an hour,” she said. “Slowly start in, get to know people. Introduce yourself. Be involved. It’s amazing when you have a family of students and faculty to back you up. Having that college family makes a difference in your college career.”

She has pulled together a new family consisting of her children, husband Garry and her son Michael’s father and grandparents. She refers to Jackie Lincoln, Michael’s grandmother, as her mom and best friend. She’s moved her biological mother into a nursing facility. For a life that during a short 23 years has seen separations, deaths, births and illness, there seems to be a serene resolution in Koonce’s life.

“I hear stories about the things that high school kids are going through, and in my head, I just want to share with them — not because of any guilt or pity, or ‘my story’s worse than yours’ — it’s, if you’re going through that, that doesn’t mean to quit. That gives you all the more reason to fight and keep pushing forward. Just live your life the best you can. Even with the nasty situation you may be in, it will get better one day. I am living proof of that.”