When Angela Ellison’s teenaged son was a toddler, she took him to an appointment at the Department of Health offices in downtown Bennington. Walking into 324 Main St., which also houses CCV, Angela looked down a hallway and noticed classrooms. One of the doors was open a crack, and she could see students inside. “I just remember having this feeling, like one day…”
Angela dropped out of school on the first day of eleventh grade. She’d struggled in school all along. She had an undiagnosed disability and a tendency to procrastinate, and was often the victim of bullying. She grew up with a single mom who suffered from mental illness and left Angela feeling neglected; her mother told her she didn’t care if Angela dropped out.
At 21, Angela was hospitalized for four months. During that time, she started having dreams that would recur for more than two decades: She dreamed about being back in high school, and doing things like going to prom and graduation. “Dropping out was detrimental to my growth at that stage in my life,” she says. But her illness and hospitalization also sparked an early interest in healthcare as a career. She says that the hospital “was where I first was cared for after not being cared for for years. Once I started to become lucid again, I wanted to give back. I thought, I’m gonna work as a nurse…I’m gonna take care of other people the way they took care of me.”
After moving to Vermont in 1997, she started a family and held jobs in retail. She worked briefly as an LNA (“then life happens”). She continued to dream about going back to school, but she was busy caring for her son and worried about how she would pay for college classes. When her husband ended up out of work in 2015, she started a small cleaning business to bring in extra money. “It was crazy,” she says of that time. She was working non-stop. “I was like, ‘what can I do? I don’t want to go into a career in cleaning.’ I started thinking about school, but ‘how can I go to school and work?’” One night she was talking to her sister on the phone, and had an “aha” moment as her sister was describing scholarships and other forms of financial aid. “It was time,” she said. That spring, she went back to 324 Main St., this time to CCV, and signed up for classes.
“I have been blown away by everything that this college stands for, how much they give to their students, how supported I’ve felt,” she said. “I was put at ease so immediately. Especially being a non-traditional student—it’s scary, you have to swallow your pride. To make that leap was huge for me. But I can’t even say enough…just complete and utter support: anything, anytime.”
This spring marked her third semester of classes at CCV. She’s planning to eventually transfer her credits to Vermont Tech and complete an associate of science in nursing. She’s eager to get her degree and get to work. “I want to be on the floor, hands-on, as soon as I can.” The coronavirus pandemic also has her thinking about healthcare in a different way, and adds a sense of urgency to her goal. “I had this moment where I kind of got this zing of excitement, like ‘oh my gosh, if I’m a nurse, I’m gonna be helping to save lives.’”
Still, it wasn’t easy starting out as an adult student. “I had to believe in myself a lot just to get there,” she said. But CCV staff were constantly reminding her they were there to help, telling her she didn’t need to do it all, or figure it all out, on her own. “It’s kind of hard to put into words the backing, the encouragement, the support that emanates through that building.” She says when balancing full-time work, college classes, and caring for her family gets overwhelming—as it did this spring, when her classes moved online—she sometimes thinks about quitting school. “But knowing I have a goal to fulfill…I didn’t work this hard to get here and throw it away.”
Her goals are focused on school and career, but they’re also about something even more personal. “I went back to school to further my education, to get a job that could support my family, out of necessity,” she explained. “But I did not realize that it’s already really changed me…the best word that would exemplify what I feel after going to school at CCV is empowered.”
More than a decade after bringing her toddler to an appointment at 324 Main St., Angela is finally one of those students she watched with such longing. “I’ve always wanted to learn. I think I forgot [that]. I never stood up for myself, but when I was in class I was fierce. I always felt very strongly about things. Even though physically I was bullied, when I was in class I felt powerful.” Being at CCV, she says, is “like a rediscovery of a drive in me to learn: now I want to read more, I want to learn for the sake of learning, I want to be more a part of the world that I live in.”