Amber Hochbein -- 2003 Graduate Working in Effort to Open New Innovative School
July 27, 2009 -- For Amber Hochbein, the greatest opportunities for growth come through struggle.
The 2003 graduate also gets a great deal of satisfaction playing a positive role in young people’s lives. She has spent nearly a year of her life helping build houses for the less fortunate in Nicaragua, and now works with teenagers in the Denver.
She shared that attending college at Western, and experiencing the Gunnison Valley community was an essential part of her development as a person and as a professional.
“It was the hardest time in my life when I moved to Gunnison,” Hochbein said.
She had just lost her mother to cancer. “Coming to Western was the most difficult and the most healing thing I could do,” she added.
Hochbein found healing in the great outdoors of the Gunnison region, the new friends and teachers she met, and the writing that she did in her studies. Hochbein majored in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing and minored in Spanish.
One of her English professors, Janet Bacon, was especially influential. Hochbein recalled her caring attitude both in and out of the classroom. “She really delved into getting to know her students,” Hochbein said. “I remember seeing her the following year after my course with her and she still was very concerned about how I was doing in life and at Western.”
In Creative Non-Fiction, taught by Bill King, she started a piece that would later become a piece in her Capstone project. The subject was the role that her mother and her experiences volunteering in Nicaragua had in shaping her life. Hochbein made her first trip to volunteer in the country with the organization Bridges to Community when she was 15.
“Writing about my life experiences helped me channel and process what I had gone through and really helped me to see all that my mother gave to me, which inspired me to give to others,” Hochbein explained.
She added that Advanced Writing with Mark Todd was another influential course in her writing development.
During her time at Western, Hochbein continued to return to Masaya, Nicaragua, as a volunteer, building concrete houses with Nicaraguan workers for families who were living in small wooden shacks. In 2003, Greg Pettys and the author, Luke Mehall--fellow Western students at the time (2005 and 2004 alumni respectively)--visited her to help construct a house. When the trio returned to Western in the fall, they started Crepes for Community, selling crepes and coffee once a week in front of the Student Union and sending all the profits to Bridges to Community in Nicaragua.
“That was great to have my two worlds come together,” Hochbein said. “Nicaragua changed my life at 15. Since then I’ve seen life in two ways: how it is here in the U.S. and how it is there.”
She explained that the average wage of a teacher in the region of Nicaragua where she volunteers is three dollars a day. To share information about Nicaragua and her experiences on a weekly basis with the teachers and students at Western was invaluable to her.
After graduating, Hochbein spent seven more months with Bridges to Community in Nicaragua, where she also volunteered with an orphanage for teenage boys. “It was a time of feeling completely alive and fulfilled every day,” she said.
She returned to Gunnison for a short time, but left to Denver to fulfill her career ambitions. “I left for Denver thinking, ‘if I could do anything like I did in Nicaragua, what would I do?’”
Influenced by her experiences since graduation, especially her time at the orphanage, Hochbein decided that she wanted to work with the youth of Denver.
It was another difficult transition with many bumps along the way. She had grown used to the simple life of Gunnison where she could walk her dog freely and not have to worry about things like parking tickets or leaving her car unlocked. Her first month was difficult and she struggled to find meaningful work.
“I had a lot of strikes against me, but I wanted to make it work,” she said.
Eventually Hochbein found a position running a Comprehensive After School program at a Southwest Denver Public School for two years. After her time at Rishel Middle School she worked for the Boys and Girls Club as an education director for two years and is still a volunteer. Currently she is an education specialist at Colorado Youth for a Change in Aurora. She is part of a team opening a new school that prepares high school students who have dropped out of school for post-secondary education including Vocational Programs and Community College.
“The key with these kids is listening and the biggest thing is that someone cares about them,” Hochbein reflected.
“I learned from losing my mother that the only thing we can really leave behind is relationships. I believe I’m doing the work I was meant for, and if my mother can shine through me to the youth I work with that would be the most meaningful way to give back I could imagine.”
Story by: Luke Mehall, assistant director of public relations