Venturing into higher education can be a little like embarking on a long trip that starts at the airport. Successfully reaching a destination is preceded by a flurry of activities – buying tickets; organizing supplies and travel documents; navigating airport buildings; and going through the check-in process. The journey often requires a lot of waiting and rushing amongst strangers, and a fear of flying can overshadow and complicate every experience. Baggage has to be relinquished, only to be frantically searched for upon arrival. Even frequent travelers can be intimidated and overwhelmed by the process. New travelers might be turned off forever. Imagine how much more successful, easier, and enjoyable such travel could be if the traveler had a dedicated person to guide and support them every step of the way.
At Laurel Ridge Community College, Dean of Students Amber Foltz offers dedicated guidance and support to students so that their college journeys have the best opportunity to be memorable, productive, and pleasant. Warm, inviting, resourceful, and intelligent, Foltz is well suited to serve as a primary advocate for students. Her passion for the work comes from her own life experiences.
Foltz experienced barriers at a very young age. She grew up in Roanoke, where her parents worked hard in blue-collar jobs. Her father was a long-haul truck driver who was gone for most of the week. The family lived in poverty and could only afford needs – no luxuries. She did well in school and her high school paid for Advanced Placement (AP) classes, which introduced her to college courses. She was encouraged by high school counselors and knew she wanted to go to college, but really didn’t know how to make it happen. Foltz and her mother struggled to complete pages upon pages of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). They were unclear how loans worked.
Foltz applied to several colleges, visiting three.
After receiving several scholarships to Roanoke College, she lived off-campus as a commuter student. She worked two to three jobs while taking a full load of classes, and had to keep her grades up in order to keep her scholarships. Reflecting on her choices, Foltz shares that she never once considered community college and realizes now that if she had viewed that as an option, her financial stresses would likely have been alleviated.
Following college, Foltz worked at a women’s shelter, later obtaining her master’s degree at the University of Maryland. It was there that she had the opportunity to become a teaching assistant, and this opened the door to her love for higher education and working with students. Following this program, she applied to a number of positions within higher education. She has since served in several key roles at Laurel Ridge — TRIO advisor, counselor, lead counselor for academic advising, advising coordinator, advising director, and of course, now dean of students.
Foltz’s journey taught her self-sufficiency and that “if you dig in and work hard enough, you can make things happen.” Her achievements broke barriers within her family. She was a first-generation college student.
Foltz realizes the importance of serving as a role model, and notes that prioritizing education for children is changing the trajectory of her own family. She notes the importance of being able to help the people around you. Critical to all of this is helping students discover that college is a place they fit – especially students who haven’t seen themselves as college material, whose families don’t value college, and whose guidance counselors didn’t see their capacity. Foltz glowingly describes “with the work that we get to do at Laurel Ridge and the mission we embrace, we not only make a difference in the lives of our students, but in the lives of their families and their capacities in the community. We are growing the local workforce, the local economy…The ripple that our mission allows us to create is amazing.”
Foltz shared the story of one student whom she assisted early in her career within the TRIO program. This student was in her 60s and was displaced from employment when a local manufacturing plant’s operations moved overseas. This student had not graduated from high school and had worked in manufacturing and service jobs her entire life. The student recalled how her early dream had been to teach, and she originally came to Laurel Ridge so she could become a teacher’s aide. She worked with Foltz from the first day she selected classes until she graduated. This student experienced multiple barriers, particularly in technology. She required lots of wrap-around support and encouragement to help her believe that she fit. She did really well in all courses, except for math which became a barrier to graduation. Foltz helped the student to refocus on passing the class in order to graduate – suggesting that sometimes “D’s make degrees.” The professor worked with her and she received support from tutors. The student took on extra-credit assignments, including writing assignments that highlighted math in society. She ended up passing the class with a “C.” Foltz recalls how incredibly proud the student was as she walked across the graduation stage to the loud cheering of her children and grandchildren. The student went on to achieve her lifelong dream of working in education and became a teacher’s aide.
Foltz notes the incredible potential for Laurel Ridge as it continues to increase resources for retention – additional human and technological resources, and safety nets and wraparound services for all students. She is excited about exploring options to open a clothing closet for students, and possibly hiring social workers who can do targeted case management with students who are homeless and/or living within poverty. As a parent with a child approaching high school, she also sees the importance of practicing what she preaches and building a culture within her own family that encourages exploring educational opportunities.
Laurel Ridge Community College was known as Lord Fairfax Community College until June 2022. For consistency purposes, the college will be referenced as Laurel Ridge going forward.