Like many students who find their way to Holyoke Community College, Aeryca Steinbauer's path was anything but direct.
She enrolled at a private liberal arts college right out of high school but left after three semesters. She moved across the country, to Oregon, unsure what she wanted to do with her life, and spent the next 10 years as a community organizer and advocate for migrant Mexican farmworkers.
It was that "important and rewarding" experience, she said, where she witnessed "troubling health disparities," that made her want to be a nurse. So she moved back East to be closer to her family and applied to all the nursing programs in the area, public and private.
"I was accepted to all the programs that I applied to," she said, "but I chose HCC. This was one of the best decisions I've made."
Steinbauer, '15, was one of the featured speakers last week at the annual Western Massachusetts Higher Education Legislative Lunch, an event that brings together area legislators, administrators and trustees from all the public colleges and universities from the state's four western counties.
This year the event was held in the PeoplesBank Conference Room in the HCC Kittredge Center for Business and Workshop Development. Steinbauer, as well as recent alumni from Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College and Springfield Technical Community College, all talked about the benefits of a community college education.
"HCC was the perfect combination of high-quality education, rigorous nursing preparation, exceptional value and affordability, geographic convenience and a diverse student body," Steinbauer said. "I loved my time at HCC."
She graduated from HCC's registered nursing program in 2015 as a valedictorian with a 4.0 GPA, and now, at 34, is set to earn her bachelor's degree in nursing this spring from the University of Massachusetts.
"My appreciation for the nursing program in particular has only grown since graduation," she said. "I feel so fortunate to have had professors who truly love their jobs and cared about my success and to have had classmates who shared my sense of purpose and came from diverse life experiences. Additionally, generous scholarships from the HCC Foundation made a huge difference in allowing me to focus on my studies."
Since she passed her nursing boards last summer, Steinbauer has been working as a registered nurse on the cardiac floor at Noble Hospital while continuing her education in an online RN-BSN nursing program at UMass.
"I am so grateful that a public education program exists that makes it easy for working nurses to get a bachelor's degree," she said.
Working at Noble, she said, she realized her true passion is community health, however, and she begins a new job this week as a nurse care manager for Substance Abuse and HIV Care at Holyoke Health Center.
"This is part of a nurse-led program to support patients in our community living with opioid dependence, HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C," she said. "It is truly my dream job, and I could not be happier."
Steinbauer told the audience she was looking forward to getting her bachelor's degree and taking a break from school, though she may pursue an advanced degree in the future.
"Right now," she said, "I feel well positioned to take advantage of all life has to offer, and to make a meaningful contribution to my community, thanks to the education I received at HCC and UMass."
PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Left) Aeryca Steinbauer, '15, talks to state Rep. Aaron Vega, center, from Holyoke, and Bonnie Zima Dowd, director of Alumni Relations at last week's annual Western Massachusetts Higher Education Legislative Lunch at HCC. (Right) Steinbauer talks to area legislators about her experience at HCC. (Thumbnail) Steinbauer talks to HCC president Bill Messner.