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Amanda Widner, BA in Psychology, Class of 2016

“I am who I am because of my past, but I do not let my past define who I am.”

As much as Amanda Widner’s past is behind her, she always keeps it front and center in her mind as motivation to stay focused on the future.

The 46-year-old Virginia native came from humble roots on a typical American farm where she grew up milking cows, growing corn, potatoes and other crops, and caring for horses, goats and pigs. As she neared the age of 18, Widner felt the need to act on a feeling she’d had for a long time, that school just wasn’t for her, so she dropped out. She married her boyfriend at the time and at the age of 19 gave birth to her first child, a daughter.

Eventually, Widner would get her GED and obtain an associate’s degree, aiming toward working as a legal assistant, but tough times were ahead.

In 2005, Widner’s marriage came to an ugly end, a tale that saw her endure infidelity and abuse. Her daughter chose to live with the father, and soon, Widner would suffer from a bout of depression and severe weight gain. She began smoking and attempted suicide on numerous occasions before landing in the intensive care unit and a mental health care facility for a matter of weeks.

Upon being released, Widner turned over a new leaf, just not the one that would lead her down the path of productivity and inner strength she now walks.

“When I got out I started doing drugs and alcohol for the next year and a half,” she said. Widner’s addiction grew to include methamphetamine, cocaine and prescription pills. “I would crush and snort them, take them, it didn’t matter what kind they were.” Widner’s dark path left her alone and ill before her family stepped in to help.

“Eventually, I went to jail for 14 days before my mother would come bail me out. My drug dealer lived with me and he came with my mother and stepdad to get me out. My mother never knew. I had been up for several days on a high and finally fell out. When I woke up I thought to myself, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I was tired of the scene. My brother called me and told me I was moving in with him and I did. I laid on his couch for three days sick as a dog.”

In September 2006, she met her current husband, William. Gripped by his own struggle with alcohol, Widner had to give the man she loved a choice between her and the bottle. William chose her. In August 2007, they were married and began a new journey together, one centered on sobriety, family and love.

Fast forward to 2013, Widner got a job at Life Center of Galax, an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center. Her work as a clinical technician quickly inspired her to pursue furthering her education with the goal to become a drug addiction counselor.

She had her doubts, but with encouragement from her husband, colleagues and even patients at the center where she worked, Widner began to believe she could do it. She found New England College and decided to enroll.

“I thought to myself, ‘What are you doing? You couldn’t pass high school what makes you think you can do this?’ ” Widner said. “I talked with co-workers and some patients and they encouraged me more than anybody in my life, not even my family encouraged me this much. I started thinking about my past and my future and the type of patients I work with and this quote came to me; ‘I am who I am because of my past, but I do not let my past define who I am.’ ”

When Widner began her search for an online degree program, she knew that her work schedule and home life would leave little time for the pursuit of a degree on campus. In discovering all that NEC had to offer, she was surprised by the amount of support and guidance she encountered.

“My professors would take the time and help me when needed,” Widner said. “I was surprised by how much contact you have with your professor and classmates. You can also stay in touch with your student advisor in case anything goes wrong or you need help. I was amazed by the programs offered in my field and the people at NEC.”

In 2016, Widner graduated with a BA in Psychology from NEC. Shortly after, she received a promotion at work and became a counselor at the center’s Intensive Supervision Program, providing care for patients who are at the center for a short period of time. In her first five months alone, Widner has been able to treat more than 300 patients.

Now able to share her story of sobriety, pursuit of higher education and career goals, she’s helping inspire her patients.

“Everybody experiences recovery differently. You can give an addict the tools but you can’t make them use them. When I do share my story the patients seem in disbelief at first, then they are amazed,” Widner said.

Today, Widner has a career path mapped out ahead of her. Widner plans to continue her life in Virginia with her husband and stepdaughter and begin a new challenge; pursuing a master’s degree and eventually becoming a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor. Widner begins courses for her master’s degree in January 2017.

“A bachelor’s degree did open up doors for me, so now I am curious as to what or how many more doors will open with a master’s degree,” Widner said.

Following each challenge met and goal achieved, Widner’s confidence and belief in herself grows. With each day, she finds new inspiration from an unexpected source: herself.

“At first I was doing this to prove to my family and others that I’m not stupid,” Widner said. “Now it is to prove to myself, my daughter, and my two stepchildren that no matter what if you really want it and you put your head into it you can and will conquer anything in life. It might sound selfish, but I inspire myself to do and become the best I can be at anything I want or try to do.”

For aspiring students, she has some simple advice.

“Like the Mountain Dew commercial says, ‘Just dew it!!!’ You have nothing to lose,” Widner said. “I tell the patients I work with, when facing a decision and they do not know what to do, to sit down with a sheet of paper, draw a line down the middle of the page and write the pros and cons. Nine times of 10, the pro side wins. You have to be honest with yourself and if you have a higher power, like mine is God, pray to your higher power, but you have to really listen and watch for the answer because it is not always black or white.”

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