Vanessa and Eric Engelhardt. (Photo courtesy of UMUC)

One woman’s journey: From ‘love at first sight’ to a ‘Pillar of Strength’

November 06, 2017 - 11:14 am

By Mary Dempsey, special to

When Hurricane Irma blasted its way toward Florida in September, Janet Thomas phoned and texted a woman in the path of the powerful storm.

Thomas, director of military support processes at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), keeps an eye on students under her watch. She learned that Vanessa Corey-Engelhardt, along with her husband and her son, had evacuated their Tampa home -- and that the student’s father had died the day before the hurricane.

If that wasn’t enough, Corey-Engelhardt was worried about how, given the storm, she’d be able to complete one online course and begin another.

“Everything was stressful, but, because I take my schoolwork seriously, that was a stressor, too,” said Corey-Engelhardt, who is halfway through the coursework toward a Bachelor of Science in gerontology and aging studies.

Thomas coordinated with Bernadine Barr, a collegiate professor, for Corey-Engelhardt to receive an incomplete in the ongoing course and then be switched into a later behavioral sciences course. Barr agreed to the change because it was her nature to help her students. She also agreed because she considered Corey-Engelhardt "the most capable and insightful student I’ve had at UMUC."

And Barr didn’t know the half of it.

Corey-Engelhardt, 47, is attending UMUC thanks to a Pillars of Strength Scholarship that covers the full cost of a degree for the caregiver of an injured servicemember. The Pillars of Strength Scholarship program is made possible through a partnership of The Blewitt Foundation and the Yellow Ribbon Fund, in association with UMUC. She was selected because of her remarkable role in caring for the injured Army Green Beret who would become her husband. Thomas was Corey-Engelhardt’s UMUC point of contact for the scholarship.

"I swore I would never be involved with anyone in the military because I’d personally seen the dark side that lingers after combat,” said Corey-Engelhardt, the daughter of a Vietnam veteran with three Purple Heart medals. “But fate had other plans for me. And in 2008 I happened to meet my husband, Eric."

She described it as love at first sight.

Six months after they started dating, Eric Engelhardt was deployed to Afghanistan where, in early 2009, he was seriously wounded. He had surgery at a field hospital and more surgery in Germany. Corey-Engelhardt flew there to accompany him then put her real estate career on hold and traveled to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington while friends and family cared for her children.

"I did not leave his room other than to shower," she said of the months of medical treatment.

Eric Engelhardt took medical retirement from the military, the couple married and they moved to North Carolina so he could study at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, using GI benefits. He then landed a job in Florida with a nonprofit veteran’s organization.

"I did not want to rebuild my real estate career for the third time," said Corey-Engelhardt, who had begun to understand that a college degree was necessary in today’s job market. She also enjoyed learning and welcomed the opportunity to be a student. She was one of two people who received the Pillars of Strength scholarship in 2015, the second year it was offered.

"College was a very big transition and one that I struggled with until I learned how to be back in school,” she said. "I’m typically an overachiever. I’d spent up to four times as long on an assignment because I wanted to do a good job."

She tapped into a roster of services available at UMUC, including Pillars of Strength advisors and career guidance through the Career Quest program, which matches students with professionals in a broad range of fields.

"I was interested in gerontology and aging services but wasn’t clear about the jobs available. There are not a lot of jobs specific to gerontology except in medicine," she said. "I think it’s going to be one of those fields where you create your own environment, which is something I’m good at."

Initially she considered pursing issues related to aging and housing. But as she became more interested in the sociology of aging, age discrimination and health care concerns of older citizens, she started thinking about public policy work, which she says will require a master’s degree.

She’s not aware that her professor has other ideas. Barr, who only recently learned about her student’s link to Pillars of Strength, said Corey-Engelhardt is Ph.D. material.

"She’s outstanding among all the students I’ve had at UMUC, even without all these other difficulties that she’s managed so gracefully,” Barr said. “She is an outstanding writer who sees broader and more important connections across material in an assignment.

"I will encourage her to do a Ph.D. because she deserves it, and the world needs capability, her vision and her compassion."

University Maryland University College is a proud partner of Click here to learn more about the Pillars of Strength Scholarship.