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‘I felt like everyone had forgotten about us’ — One community college graduate discovered her life purpose from a childhood trauma

Driving into Rockingham County, I am hit with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. The bounty of trees, rolling fields, and country roads bring me back to my childhood.

I grew up visiting the towns of Mayodan and Eden, where my mom is from and a great deal of her family still reside. This time I am not visiting for a helping of Aunt Marla’s cornbread and time with Uncle Tim’s cows, but rather to learn about Rockingham Community College (RCC) and one very special alumna, my aunt, Mona Easter.

RCC is a driving force in education for Rockingham County. Today, it serves over 2,000 students and has more than 20 degree programs and certificate options. Forty years ago, the nursing degree program changed the trajectory of my aunt Mona’s life.

In 1980, she was a new mom working towards her associate degree to fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse. Today, she is the Chief Nursing Officer and Vice President of Operations at Cone Health’s Annie Penn hospital, right down the road from RCC in Reidsville. 

From trauma to purpose

In the fourth grade, Easter decided she was going to be a nurse. “I remember my fourth grade teacher saying, ‘Draw a picture of what you want to be when you grow up.’ And I was going to be a nurse. I always was going to be a nurse and never thought I would do anything else,” she said. 

I wondered where that drive came from, especially since no one in her family worked in the healthcare field. Easter’s father, my grandfather, worked in a mill. Her mother, my grammy, worked in a sewing plant. So I asked her if there was anything that pushed her towards the nursing profession. As it turned out, Easter’s decision to become a nurse happened in the midst of a family tragedy. It’s a story I know well, but not one that we talk about all that much. 

My aunt Mona (far right), mom Mechelle, and aunt Marla (far left). Courtesy of Marla Martin

“My youngest sister, Marla, was accidentally shot,” Easter said. What ensued after that moment was complete chaos, especially looking through Easter’s nine-year-old eyes. Marla was rushed to the hospital. Easter and my mom, Mechelle, followed. They were left sitting in a hallway of the hospital for hours while doctors rushed to save Marla’s life. 

“I felt like everyone had forgotten about us,” Easter said. Exhausted and terrified, they sat there alone waiting for answers. Finally, someone appeared to give them some solace — a nurse.  

“This woman came in. She was dressed in white, and she was a nurse. She appeared to me like an angel,” Easter said. “She just said, ‘Hey, I know you’re probably hungry, and I know you’re scared and you’re worried about your sister. She’s going to be okay.’”

This interaction still holds meaning for Easter today. It’s what led her to a career in nursing. It was in that moment that Easter made a choice.

“I want to be that person. I want to be that person who has compassion and cares and is so loving. And so that’s when I knew that day and never looked back — I was always going to be a nurse.”

A winding educational journey

Rockingham Community College was the place where Easter learned the foundations of nursing. Neither of Easter’s parents had a college education, and they didn’t have the money to help her at all with school. Thankfully, financial aid made higher education accessible to her.

“I had to figure out how to do it on my own, and I did through financial aid. The college had a work-study program that was very unique in that it paid you an hourly wage for every hour you were in class,” she said. 

Easter became a mother during her time at RCC. After she graduated with her associate of science in nursing, she took a job at a local hospital. During her first year on the job, she set her sights on a new goal — becoming a chief nursing officer. To achieve this goal, she knew she had to go back to school. 

My aunt Mona at Annie Penn hospital in 1984. Courtesy of Marla Martin

At this point, she was raising two children and working full-time. Going back to school was what she needed to do, but it wasn’t easy. Luckily she discovered a satellite program at UNC Greensboro that would allow her to get her bachelor’s of science in nursing in less than two years. 

“I could stay at home, take care of my children, work a full-time job, and go to school,” Easter said.

Her kids were also in school at the time, which actually helped Easter stay focused. “I got through it because after we had dinner, we did homework together. So they did their homework, I did my homework,” she said. 

After earning her BS in nursing, Easter knew a master’s degree was the next step to achieve her goal of becoming a chief nursing officer. She was hesitant to get a master’s in nursing, though. She wanted to grow her knowledge in other related fields.

“As a clinician, I felt like my financial acumen was lacking,” Easter said. “I really wanted to expand on my knowledge, learn something new, be around different people, people outside of the healthcare field, just to, you know, widen my world.”

She decided on another satellite program, this time with Averett University, to earn her master’s in business administration. “They provided classes in a local factory called Miller Brewing Company,” Easter said. Students met in the conference rooms at the factory and worked together in groups to complete their assignments. 

“I got to meet those people from all kinds of different areas. Some were strictly business, some were in manufacturing. There were just all kinds of different careers. And that, I think, helped to make me more well rounded as a leader,” Easter said. 

From bedside to boardroom

After earning her master’s, Easter was finally able to achieve her dream of becoming a chief nursing officer. She treasures all parts of her career, though, and credits her years at the bedside as giving her fulfillment in nursing early on.

“It was really an opportunity to practice being compassionate and to really have a very positive impact on a person’s lives at a time when they’re at the most vulnerable point,” Easter said. 

Some days she misses direct patient work, but she’s grateful for the bigger picture impact she’s able to have with her current role at the hospital. “I feel like at this level, I’m able to really impact policy,” she said. Easter also mentors young nurses, which keeps her connected to what’s happening on the ground floor. 

The privilege of giving back

Easter has worked in Rockingham County her entire life. Her career in healthcare has flourished, and that started at RCC. 

“I wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for that community college. Even today, nurses here at Annie Penn, in our nursing staff, the majority would not be here if it wasn’t for that community college.”

A flag on the campus of Rockingham Community College. Alli Lindenberg/EducationNC

With the knowledge, skills, and confidence Easter cultivated through her journey in education, she’s now in the position to give back to the community that raised her. This is an honor she takes seriously, and she wants to see her community grow positively in the coming years. The school in our backyard, as RCC is locally called, is working every day to do just that. 

Alli Lindenberg

Alli Lindenberg is an executive fellow for EducationNC.