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Sterling is Role Model for Nontraditional Students

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Heather Sterling takes a break outside of the Caroline Student Center at Chesapeake College. 

WYE MILLS - Heather Sterling´s first day at Chesapeake College was metaphor for her life at the time. At 31, Sterling was older than the traditional college student and unsure of her prospects when she found herself waiting at the door of the college´s Cambridge Center.

"I was just standing there waiting and worrying. I was scared to death and already starting to regret my decision to enroll. I was on the threshold of something unknown – literally and figuratively," Sterling said.

Sterling said she was desperately trying to tamp down her nerves and self doubt when things got worse. A 20-something guy brimming with confidence and energy bounded up to the door. She thought he was the stereotypical college student: more surfer dude than scholar. Despite his bright smile and laid-back friendliness, Sterling found the man´s disposition irritating.

"I took one look at him and thought, ´this is the last thing I need right now´. He was everything that I wasn´t. I was wondering how I would survive in college so long after I finished high school and this guy looked like he didn´t have a care in the world. At that point, I was just praying that he wasn´t going to be in my class. Then we walked into the same classroom! My heart just sank," she said.

Sterling was stunned as she watched the young man stride to the front of the classroom. She quickly learned that he was not the "stereotypical college student", but Anthony Ongyod, her communications instructor.

"He just shattered my vision of the stuffy, critical college professor. He was the exact opposite of what I had expected. Everything that I had been feeling and thinking up to that point changed. My own vision of myself went right out the window," Sterling said. "I´ve never looked back."

So, at that moment, Sterling said, she began a metamorphosis.

Sterling´s experience culminates on May 21 when she receives her associate´s degree with 225 other Chesapeake graduates and accepts the John T. Harrison Award, the college´s highest student honor.

"My family tradition was going to high school and getting a job. That was it, so that´s what I did," Sterling said. "I wasn´t a great student in high school and I never saw college as part of my future."

Sterling, a Preston resident, started working in retail right after her high school graduation, holding jobs at Wal-Mart and Peebles in Easton. She had been working in retail for 14 years, when her uncle started encouraging her to continue her education.

Sterling said, "My uncle said that I was closing doors on my future and he encouraged me to try college. I know that I wouldn´t be here now if he hadn´t encouraged me. Once I enrolled here, the staff and faculty provided me with encouragement. They taught me, pushed me and helped me." In such an environment, Sterling said she felt free to learn and grow. Supportive instructors like Ongyod, she said, helped her to see her own potential. She was tapped for the Leadership Academy and inducted into the Phi Theta Kappa honor society. The state´s community college student activities directors this year chose Sterling to represent all of Maryland´s community college students at Student Advocacy Day at the Statehouse.

"I´ve discovered abilities and confidence that I didn´t know I had," Sterling said. "I enjoy public speaking now, which would have terrified me a few years ago. I´m not afraid to face new challenges now because I know that something good can come of them."

Ongyod – Sterling´s first professor at Chesapeake – took note of Sterling´s determination.

"I admire Heather and other nontraditional students like her. She wanted a new life and went after it. She didn´t sit back and wait for changes to come to her," Ongyod said. "It´s not easy, but she jumped right in and started working very hard. I think she´s an excellent role model for other students."

A Technical and Professional Studies major, Sterling is finishing her third term as president of the Student Government Association. In her role as president, she has become both a campus leader and a visible representative of the college. This year she was named to the list of Who´s Who Among American Junior College Students.

Amy Childs, Chesapeake´s director of student life, said Sterling has provided strong leadership to the college´s student body.

"Heather has made great contributions to Chesapeake College," said Childs. "It´s been wonderful to see her grow during her time here and the college has benefited from all that she has learned. She´s a student leader and mentor to many here."

Sterling wants to take her experience as a student leader into the workplace. She is currently looking for a job in human resources, and this fall will begin a part-time bachelor´s degree program through the University of Maryland University College at Chesapeake´s Higher Education Center. She hopes to use her own experiences to encourage other working adults to escape their personal and career "ruts" through education.

"Obviously, education means more opportunities, but I truly feel like a changed person. I see the world differently than I did a few years ago," Sterling said. "The people I´ve met at Chesapeake have given me a positive outlook and opened my eyes to all the possibilities in life. I used to be limited and negative, and now I wake up every day and see opportunity. Going back to college made me realize that there can be better things in my future than I imagined."

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