Social Work student comes full circle as family therapist specialized in substance abuse

Diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and prenatal cocaine exposure, Amber Cole ’17 was born facing an uphill battle. During a time when the U.S. confronted an epidemic of mothers with substance abuse issues throughout the 1980s and 1990s, health professions began their research on the social and behavioral effects of a new generation of children who would be intellectually and socially impaired throughout their lives.

“These children, at no fault of their own, became subjected to the harsh realities of drug addiction and its acquired challenges,” said Cole. “It is a reality that I understand myself, as my mother was in rehab after learning that she was pregnant with me, and it is, unfortunately,

Amber Cole and her sons at her 2017 graduation.

where she remained for the majority of my childhood before becoming sober about 13 years later.”

School was always difficult for Cole, falling behind more and more each year. Growing up in Fayetteville, NC, she attended an elementary school that lacked resources for children with additional needs or the faculty support to help her when she needed it.

“Sadly, I never knew how far behind I was in elementary school. In fact, no child in attendance knew there were greater opportunities for education,” she explained.

Fortunately for Cole, she had the support of her father and extended family. When she was nine years old, Cole moved to a new county where her father took a campus policing job at North Carolina State University. There, Cole discovered just how far behind she was academically while also being bullied for being different from her classmates.

“It was a ‘rich-school,’ where I was one of only six black children in the entire 4th grade and bullied for having African-American features. The difficulty of academia increased and yet, I was passed along from grade-to-grade; disappearing into a class rank, and my academic needs never met.”

It wasn’t until Cole attended a historically black college in North Carolina for her undergraduate studies that she discovered the joys of academia through small class sizes, professors who understood cultural disadvantages, and supportive campus communities.

“My passion to uplift individuals transpired though my efforts in many capacities and I finally got the academic support that I had lacked all along.”

When Cole moved to Florida in 2013, she soon turned to FIU to obtain her Master of Social Work. At the School of Social Work, Cole continued to thrive both academically, and within the community, specializing in substance abuse and beginning her journey to advocate for children’s rights on a national level including with the Congressional Research Institute of Social Work Policy in Washington, D.C.

“As a senior coordinator for the Congressional Research Institute of Social Work Policy, I spearheaded the advocacy for the co-sponsorship of two Congressional bills designed to expand access to mental health and strengthen the social work profession. It was these efforts that positively influenced congress to save the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.”

Back at home, Cole spent a year fighting for underserved children as a community representative and policy chairwoman for Catholic Charities’ Head Start program. She also worked to approve the allocation of an $8 million budget in efforts to support more than 100 classrooms in Miami-Dade. The central foundation of her academic and personal service is comprised of passion and understanding of the social-ecological systems of community-based services and their abilities to change the lives of underserved families.

Amber’s passion for the community now as a clinical social worker puts into practice the core values and ethical principles of social service to foster healthy spirits, minds and bodies for children, adults and families with staff, curriculum materials, playground equipment, and recruitment efforts. For this and her community work, Cole was recently profiled in MIA’s Legacy Magazine’s 40 under 40.

Now, Cole is ready to take her next challenge: earning her Ph.D. in Social Welfare at the School of Social Work, where she plans to integrate social work research into public policy issues and outcomes.

“We are excited that Amber has returned to the School of Social Work to pursue her doctorate,” said Mary Helen Hayden, director of the School of Social Work. “Her energy and hard work are contagious, and we know that her professional success will lead to academic excellence and a very bright future.”

Further recognition of her commitment to academia and the community, Cole was recently awarded an Inclusion Fellowship from the FIU University Graduate School.

“The social work discipline was created to give power back to the community. Power that heals, power that transforms and power to create lasting generations of healthy homes,” Cole said. “I have been fortunate to come ‘full circle,’ working as a family therapist, specialized in substance abuse and child welfare. I know my purpose in life: to redirect generational cycles of drug abuse and misuse, which is what I will focus my research on while I am at FIU.”

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