Arts & Culture

UK HealthCare Employee Perseveres Through Pandemic, Cancer Diagnosis to Earn Art Degree

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photo of Ambre Armstrong outside the entrance to UK SAVS Building
photo of Ambre Armstrong with brick wall of SAVS Building behind her
photo of Ambre Armstrong seated at table in SAVS computer lab space

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Dec. 16, 2021) Sometimes when you know, you know.

For Ambre Armstrong, a native of Madisonville, Kentucky, pursuing art wasn’t a given. In fact, she decided when she was finishing up high school to study something else at the collegiate level, earning a degree in geography from Western Kentucky University in 2006. But one emotional, fateful day touring New York City’s Museum of Modern Art 10 years later would change her way of thinking. 

The road ahead for Armstrong would be a test in perseverance from day one. To make college accessible to her, the UK HealthCare worker attended the university on a part-time basis taking advantage of UK’s Employee Education Program (EEP). Through EEP, full-time UK employees have the cost of up to eight credit hours of class waived per semester.

However, the long hours of working full-time and pursing a degree part-time would be only part of the challenge. Armstrong would also have to weather working in a front-line facility — Good Samaritan Hospital — during a global pandemic, and her own personal health scare on the road to earn her degree.

UKNow recently caught up with December 2021 graduate Ambre Armstrong to find out what it took for her to reach her goal of earning a bachelor’s degree in digital media and design at UK’s School of Art and Visual Studies (UK SAVS).

UKNow: You had a bit of an unconventional start to college. What made you decide to return to college in your late 30s?

Armstrong: I have always loved art but never had any guidance or training. Honestly, I just didn’t think I could be an artist.

In October of 2016, my mother and I took a trip to New York City. While walking around MoMA, I was so inspired I began to cry inside the museum. I decided in that moment that I was going to go back to school for art and follow my passion. I enrolled at UK SAVS and started in January of 2017.

I have been going part-time for the duration of this degree since I needed to stay a full-time employee with UK.

UKNow: You work with UK HealthCare. Tell us a little about what your job entails?

Armstrong: I am a patient clerical assistant at Good Samaritan Hospital. You can think of me as the unit secretary. I am the face you see first at the nurse’s station to greet patients and families. I assist in patient movement to and from our floor, answer patient calls, answer phones and generally try to keep the unit working as efficiently as possible.

UKNow: How did your job at UK help you pursue your collegiate dreams?

Armstrong: One of the benefits of working full-time for UK is the EEP program. UK pays for six college hours per semester. So, it just made sense to pursue my degree part-time while working full-time.

UKNow: Are your coworkers supportive of you finishing your degree?

Armstrong: I have been lucky with my coworkers. We all support each other in anything that advances us in our lives.

UKNow: What has it looked like balancing work and your studies?

Armstrong: It hasn’t been easy. My shifts are 12.5 hours at Good Samaritan. There have been many days where I worked, went home to shower, went to SAVS to work until early in the morning and then back at work at 7 a.m. Sometimes, sleep gets pushed to the side in order to get everything done.

UKNow: What is your favorite part of your studies with UK School of Art and Visual Studies?

Armstrong: This program of study is amazing because you have the ability to discover what you like and dislike. There are so many forms of art I might not have been exposed to in another program. You can take photography, 3D printing, painting, drawing, printmaking, etc. However, I have found that I have a true love for printmaking. I will always incorporate some form of printmaking into my art practice.

UKNow: What’s been the best part of pursuing your degree in digital media and design?

Armstrong: I would have to say learning and being challenged. I enjoyed and will continue to enjoy becoming the artist I didn’t think I could become.

I always had the most fun when viewing my friends’ art. It is such a great feeling to see their art being installed, everyone appreciating what they created and the joy that comes from those experiences.

UKNow: Is there a particular faculty member you have enjoyed working with or consider a mentor?

Armstrong: There are two that I have really enjoyed learning from, Jonathan McFadden and David Wischer. I learned so much about my art practice in Jonathan’s classes. He is an encyclopedia of knowledge and is happy to share it with his students. He is one of the best professors I have ever had.

David is also an incredible professor; I literally could not have graduated without his help. He is always available to his students and is really supportive.

UKNow: More recently you have the added stress of a pandemic in all aspects of your life, but especially working in a health care facility.

Armstrong: Honestly, it has been hard on all of the employees. Each wave has us all uneasy because of how it impacts us at work, our families and communities. It causes extra stress on all of us, everyone is truly exhausted.

UKNow: How much more difficult did the pandemic make balancing work and studies? Did you consider taking a break? 

Armstrong: Really the pandemic just created more stress in every aspect of my life. All the added stress can be overwhelming, and it wears you down. 

UKNow: On top of a pandemic, you also navigated a major health scare during this time. Would you share a bit about that?

Armstrong: On April Fool’s Day of 2020, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. This was in the early days of the pandemic, so everything was uncertain. I was on medication to inhibit the cancer growing. However, I wasn’t sure when I could get my surgeries due to different ORs being shut down for the pandemic. It was really hard and stressful.

Then navigating chemo during a pandemic is especially scary because it tanks your immune system. I had to work, in a hospital, the day after every chemo treatment. I did have to take a semester off from school to deal with the chemo and second set of surgeries. After my surgeries and treatments, I was able to come back and finish my degree.

UKNow: How did SAVS and/or UK HealthCare help you during this time?

Armstrong: My advisor, Jane Andrus, was instrumental in helping me graduate. She helped guide me with classes that worked with my schedule, throughout my degree. She checked in with me to see how I was doing through some of my hardest times at SAVS. She truly cares about the students and is an asset to UK.

The Markey Cancer Center is incredible. I can’t say enough nice things about my treatment team. Dr. (Erin) Burke, Dr. (Mara) Chambers, Dr. (Charles) Dietrich and Dr. (Lesley) Wong were all amazing. Everyone on my treatment team from my social worker to my genetic counselor really helped me throughout my journey.

UKNow: Any other support system that was there for you?

Armstrong: My family and friends were very supportive. I’m particularly grateful for my mom and my fiancé. It was so hard on my mom. She doesn’t live here and with COVID raging and no one having a vaccine in the early days, I didn’t want her coming up here. I did not want to risk exposing her to COVID. So, she had to deal with everything from a distance with phone calls, which was really hard emotionally. 

My fiancé was my caregiver throughout everything. I can’t imagine going through it without him. He literally had to do almost everything for me for a while. He never complained, he just took care of me. His parents helped after surgery as well. They have been really nurturing through all of this.

UKNow: What advice would you give someone else met with great adversity during work and/or their studies?

Armstrong: It is so easy to get overwhelmed, it can be crushing. For me, it was really important that I focus on what needed to get done first and then move on to the next thing. If I looked at everything that had to be done it was daunting.

If you have a support network, open up to them. Be honest about where you are mentally/physically and ask for help if you need it. If you don’t have a support network, please seek one out. I promise there are people out there that will support and love you.

UKNow: Now that you're only steps away from graduating, how do you feel?

Armstrong: It is a relief! Going part-time, of course, makes earning the degree take longer. I have been through so much during this time, it is an achievement.

UKNow: And what’s next after you cross the Commencement stage?

Armstrong: I will begin looking in earnest for a job in this field and am excited to see how this degree will help open new doors for me.

 

UK's December Commencement Ceremonies will take place at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. this Friday, Dec. 17. More information is available at https://commencement.uky.edu/.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.