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Top Chesapeake student will use past challenges to help others

Posted on Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sharon Cole with Gregory Farley, Biology Professor and PTK Advisor 

WYE MILLS – Sharon Cole, of Ridgely, wants to use her own suffering to help society’s most needy. The associate’s degree she received this week is a crucial step in her long range plan to help others. On Wednesday, Cole graduated from Chesapeake College and will receive the John T. Harrison Award, the college’s top honor for academic achievement and community service.

"Sharon’s academic achievements and civic engagement are exactly the type of qualities the Harrison Award is meant to recognize. She has had a significant positive impact on our campus and our community during her time at Chesapeake," said Dr. Richard Midcap, vice president for student success and enrollment services.

Cole – who until recent years was shy and full of self-doubt – said she is an unlikely candidate for such an award. A victim of childhood abuse, Cole said she suffered all the effects in silence.

"Suffering abuse affects every part of you, even your physical health," Cole said. "In addition to the emotional suffering, I had trouble sleeping and had terrible migraines. I wasn’t really living my life."

When the symptoms and memories became too much to bear, Cole, 44, sought the help of a therapist four years ago. She found that it was difficult for adults to find and pay for mental health services.

"My therapy was very successful. Within two or three months, I even saw an improvement in the physical symptoms," Cole said. "My therapist helped me deal with the past and look ahead to the future. She helped me find the courage to go to college."

When Cole graduated from North Caroline High School in 1984, she was discouraged from attending college. She said that although she wanted to enroll in college classes, her family was not supportive.

"We couldn’t afford college and my mom didn’t want me applying for financial aid. She wanted me to get a job and contribute to the family income. So, that’s what I did," she said.

In 2007, Cole decided it was time to work toward her dream of attending college. Recently separated from her husband, Cole said she realized that a well-paying job would not be possible without a college education.

"My expectations were very low. I had been out of high school for so long that I had to take several developmental courses. I knew it was going to be a long road and I figured I would just be on my own," she said.

Instead, Cole said she found faculty and staff willing to help her along the way. It started with the financial aid office where they found scholarships for Cole and then continued on through the advising process to develop an academic plan.

"It didn’t end with the planning process. Once I was in the classes, the professors helped me really learn the material. They always had time for my questions and sometimes they would help just by listening to me. When I was overwhelmed by the course work, I could always find help in the Academic Support Center. Chesapeake was like a supportive family – no matter what problem cropped up someone was always there to help," she said.

As Cole achieved academic success and gained confidence, she decided to give back to the campus. She will graduate with a 3.8 grade point average and an exemplary record of campus service. Cole has earned a place on the Dean’s List for all of her semesters at Chesapeake.

A member of the Phi Theta Kappa international honor society, Cole was chosen to lead the organization this year.

"PTK was more active and visible this year for the best reasons. Sharon led the chapter in a great mix of academic and community service," said Associate Professor Greg Farley, the PTK faculty advisor. "The chapter accomplished so much this year and Sharon was the driving force. I admire her perseverance and dedication."

Cole organized one of the most active years in the chapter’s history. Multiple service projects, including park clean ups and a blanket drive for a Mid-Shore shelter, marked this year’s accomplishments.

"We had great officers and dedicated members who worked hard to make PTK a force for good in our community," she said. "I’m proud of the work we did this year."

Cole credits her Chesapeake instructors with helping to build not just her academic acumen, but her self image and confidence

"Dr. Shirley Maase, with her Communications 101 class, was the first teacher to push me outside of my comfort zone. I was afraid to even raise my hand in class, let alone stand up and give a presentation. She forced me to deal with my fear of speaking in public," Cole said.

As the Harrison Award winner, Cole was be the Class of 2010 student speaker at the commencement ceremony on May 26.

Farley said, "I’m confident Sharon will do great things in the future. I think the best possible ending would be if she can help people in the way that she should’ve been helped."

This fall, Cole will enter the College of Notre Dame where she plans to major in psychology. After she completes her bachelor’s degree, Cole said she hopes to earn a master’s degree and later a Ph.D. Her eventual goal is to be a licensed therapist with her own practice. Her future plans include community service.

"My plan is to donate some of my services to help the underserved adult population that can’t afford mental health services," Cole said. "Therapy can change your life and it’s sad that so many people can’t afford the help that they really need. I want to find a way to help people deal with their problems and move forward in their lives."


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