by Neree Aron-Sando
It took her a decade, but Emily Walichnowski, of North Wales, picked up her diploma from Montgomery County Community College in May in spite of an interruption in her education that would have dashed diploma hopes for many people.
“What is remarkable about me as a student is that I left school in 2005 because of an addiction,” said Emily Walichnowski, 29, of North Wales. “In 2008, I came back to school clean and raised my grade point average from almost nothing back up to a 3.0. It took a lot of hard work. I stayed in school when hard things happened; most people would have dropped out or at least lessened their class load.”
“Hard things” also included her mother’s life-threatening illness, going to class nine months pregnant, and caring for a toddler.
Her mother has rheumatoid arthritis; during a hospitalization, she discovered she had Crohn’s disease and was in and out of the hospital for a few of Walichnowski’s semesters. “Medication lowered Mom’s immune system; she developed pneumonia and had to be put into a medically induced coma,” Walichnowski said. She finally pulled through, but she was in the hospital for almost Walichnowski’s entire last semester.
In addition to the emotional impact, her mother’s illness took away the support her mother gave Walichnowski with her son.
“Having a toddler and going to school, that’s where the KEYS program helped out. I was able to get help paying for daycare and be able to focus on my schoolwork. Without their help, I don’t know what I would have done,” she said. “Without the KEYS program to help me out with the costs of child care, transportation, and book-buying, I don’t know if I would have been able to do that. I owe that program a big thank you.”
KEYS (Keystone Education Yields Success) is a state-funded program that helps single parents pay for costs associated with education.
Walichnowski graduated from high school in 2002, took a year off, and started classes at Montgomery County Community College in 2003.
But she started using drugs. “I became a heroin addict. My grades dropped and I left school,” she said. “Basically, for five years I was just focused on drugs.
“For me, the whole taboo of addiction doesn’t exist. Through my treatment, I’ve met people from the city, from the suburbs, doctors; the disease of addiction holds no boundaries regarding whom it can affect,” Walichnowski said. “I’m very open about what I’ve gone through. The more open I am, the more receptive people seem to be. I don’t have anything to be ashamed of. It’s a disease. I just try to lessen the stigma that comes along with being an addict. The experience shaped me into a better person. I’m less judgmental and more open-minded.”
She changed her major from Nursing to Human Services and hopes to apply her experiences to help others. “Use the pain for something good,” she said. “I cannot wait for the day that I am a drug and alcohol counselor.
“I remember when I was in the worst part of my addiction, looking at people who were clean and being jealous. I just wanted to go through a normal routine, and I wanted that badly. I remind myself how that felt and how I don’t want to go back there,” Walichnowski said. “When I walked out of school in 2003, my grades were all fails. When I went back in 2008, I brought my GPA up to a 3.0. I really applied myself.”
Walichnowski chose Montgomery County Community College because of its location, reputation, and the cost of tuition. “Grants and scholarships paid for most of my education,” she said. “I received a $1,000 scholarship this past year from the KEYS program. The quality of education at Montgomery County Community College is amazing considering how affordable it is.”
Walichnowski intends to start in human services program at Gwynedd-Mercy College in the fall. “I am going to miss the College, but I look forward to seeing what comes next.”