Worth the Climb: Never Too Late To Achieve Dreams
It’s a Saturday morning in 1981. Sunbeams slowly trickle into a small family tent, covered in sparkling morning dew. The sounds of a campfire crackle in the ears of a then 7-year-old Amanda Cox. Yawning and wiping the sleep from her eyes, she unzips the tent, filling her lungs with the crisp, fresh air of a new day – the Rocky Mountain view just as glorious as the day before.
This was a normal weekend for Cox and her family – camping in the mountains not far from where they lived in Colorado Springs.
And it was something that would carve a path in her heart like the winding Colorado River.
When Cox was 14, her family moved from the Centennial State to the Buckeye State, her parents’ birthplace, to take care of her aging grandparents.
Cox graduated from Norton High School in 1992 and took a year off from school before studying commercial arts at a nearby college. She quickly secured a graphic design job that she loved.
Not long after, Cox was married and began having children of her own – Matthew in 1996, followed by Shaun in 1998.
Like many mothers, the Manchester, Ohio, native decided to stay home and raise her boys.
“As a mom, you do what you have to do,” said Cox. “I loved doing graphic design, but I chose to stay home and take care of my family.”
As her boys grew up, Cox was active with them in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. She was Shaun’s Cub Scout den leader, troop webmaster, committee member and was on panels for many Eagle Scout board reviews. She cherishes memories of summer camps – hiking, tying knots, cooking over coals and being a teacher of all things outdoors.
One of her favorite memories was going through Wood Badge training.
“I think it’s really important to teach children when they are young to respect nature,” explained Cox. “One of my Wood Badge projects was to create a Leave No Trace program and present it to all of the Cub Scouts. That was a lot of fun because I got to spend some time with them, teaching them the importance of caring for our environment.”
It was that passion that led Cox to take a big step – going back to school.
“When Shaun graduated high school, I thought ‘I have to do something with my life,’ ” said Cox.
Around 2016, she worked at a home cleaning business. As it often happens in life – Cox was in the right place at the right time. She tidied up for a Kent State University at Stark faculty member who encouraged her to go back to school, adding that a new degree was in the works – environmental studies.
And that was the sign she needed.
At 43 years old, Cox began working toward her environmental studies degree at Kent State Stark. She would be in college at the same time as both of her sons. Matthew was also attending Kent State University and Shaun was at Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Both boys have been extremely proud and supportive of their mom.
“I was thinking, ‘It's about time she went back to school!’ ” said Matthew, who graduated with a degree in information technology.
Determined from the get-go, Cox dove into environmental studies.
“The first class I took – Dr. (Chris) Post’s ‘Nature and Society’ – I realized ‘This is it! I love it! ‘This is so me,’ ” Cox said.
In 2019, she volunteered to take care of Flash’s Food Garden, the cumulative project of the “Campus and Community Gardens” class led by Post, a professor of geography and environmental studies. Cox worked hard to water, weed and harvest daily.
She even took it upon herself to open the campus garden to students who wanted to learn about gardening, or who wanted more school or community involvement. Over the two-month period, 10 to 14 different students, all with unique gardening experience, took her up on the opportunity.
Seeing the summit
Cox has already started as an intern at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio – a major stepping stone to her dream job.
“When I started this path of my education, my goal was to get a job with the national parks,” said Cox. “To have this internship right out of school – is it too good to be true?”
And the reason she landed the internship has been a full-circle experience. In addition to her Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies with minors in geography and earth science, the national park was interested in her extensive experience with the Scouts and merit badge training.
“This internship is huge!” Cox added. “To get in with the National Parks is so difficult, so that in itself is a huge deal, but to have something that was my goal and to have it – to actually achieve it – it’s been exciting!”
And the apple doesn’t fall far. Cox’s father has worked as a trail maintenance worker for Cuyahoga Valley National Park for nearly 20 years.
“He loves it!” laughed Cox. “He’s 72, and he’s going to be 100 years old, and he’s still going to be working there. I think I get my passion from him.”
On May 14, while most parents watched their child(ren) walk at commencement ceremonies, Cox walked with Matthew. Both left Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium and traveled to Virginia to watch Shaun commission into the U.S. Army and graduate from VMI over Saturday and Sunday.
“It was way more of an emotional weekend because it’s something I shared with my boys,” said Cox, teary-eyed. “To get to walk with my oldest son is – maybe for other kids they might have been embarrassed – but my kids, they support anything that I do, and I think that comes from me supporting everything that they’ve done growing up. I think it’s reciprocal.”
For Matthew, the feeling is mutual.
“I did feel pretty good about graduating with my mom at the same time,” he said. “She's definitely worked hard for what she earned.”
Cox recalled discussing “shared experiences” in her environmental studies classes and how her graduation experience with her sons reflects that.
“My experience was different. I think it would totally be different if I was just (graduating) by myself. It would be more about me. But instead, it’s more about what we accomplished together as a family,” said Cox. “I think it also signifies the end of something, which makes me kind of sad, which is probably why it is so emotional. At this point, my kids are gonna go off and they’re going to go do their own things.”
And while it marks an end, it’s a beginning for Cox, too.
“I’m really excited to start a journey that is something I chose – not just something that came my way to help make ends meet,” she said. “I’m really ready to start my journey.”
The next peak
Five years ago, Cox went back to the Colorado campsite that’s been in her family for 40 years.
“It had been almost 30 years since I had been back,” she said.
But, this time, the mountains didn’t seem as big as she’d remembered them. Within reach, ready for the climb.
“Everything’s smaller in real life, even the mountains,” said Cox, who knows conquering what seems insurmountable begins with a first step – and an open mind.
“I could totally move back here. It’s my home.”
For now, Cox is keeping an open mind.
“There’s so many beautiful places in this world,” she said.
And the possibilities are endless.
Just like the crisp morning Colorado air, for Cox – a 2021 graduate – everything feels new.