UMUC prides itself on offering second chances to adult learners wishing to earn a college education. But for Pablo Coffie, a second chance wasn’t going to cut it. He breezed by third, fourth, fifth, sixth . . . who knows how many chances.
His academic career included being expelled from high school twice, taking some classes while in prison as a self-described thug. Taking more classes while in the Army, even when he was wounded twice in three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sticking with it through his slow recovery with multiple chronic injuries. He even managed to take classes while he was homeless, living off the land with the skills he learned as an infantryman.
That makes Coffie’s graduation with an associate’s degree this spring at the age of 38 all the more remarkable. He made sure he walked in full academic regalia not once but twice—at ceremonies in Adelphi, Maryland, and at Norfolk, Virginia, where his two daughters could see him.
Through it all, he credits two UMUC counselors—Sonya Sessions on the Kaiserslautern Military Community advising team in Europe and Diane Topping, the military education coordinator for Stateside Military Operations in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Coffie said they supported him, no matter how many times he stumbled, no matter what his needs. He could always contact them and get an answer and encouragement.
Now, Coffie has a job through Warriors4Wireless, which helps vets find careers with communications companies, and he is planning his next foray into higher education—attaining a UMUC bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity.
His story is a lesson in perseverance.
Born in Santiago, Chile, Coffie was abandoned by his parents and adopted when he was four by an American couple who offered a permanent loving home to more children from around the world and foster care for others.
But by the time he was nine, Coffie had become such an incorrigible child that his parents could no longer handle him. Sent to group homes, his behavior did not improve. He became involved in drug dealing by the time he was 13. He was expelled twice from high school. He ran away from the group homes and was imprisoned for five years.
While there, he got his GED. But he knew that when he got out of prison he would end up back in again. So, he said, he asked the judge to let him join the military as the only way he could change.
His first duty assignment was at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in 2002 with the 101st Airborne. And when the division deployed for the start of the Iraq War in March 2003, he was there.
But on July 19, 2003—which happened to be his birthday—a car bomb blew up in front of his truck. His heart stopped and he had to be resuscitated on the battlefield before he was medically transported, first to Baghdad, then to Kuwait, and finally back to Fort Campbell.
After recovering, he returned to his unit where, again, his truck was ambushed, hit by two IEDs and a rocket-propelled grenade. The army wanted to give him a medical discharge, but he fought to remain in the military despite injuries to his neck, spine, ribs and a traumatic brain injury. He passed the physical test and was assigned to Fort Story in Virginia Beach.
“This is the first time in my career that I heard about college,” he said. “They would let us do classes during lunch. I took some business and writing classes.” But they were not courses at University of Maryland University College He would be introduced to UMUC later, after another tour in Iraq in 2008-2009, during an assignment to Germany.
“I met Sonya Sessions,” he said of his initial UMUC encounter. “She was awesome. She sat me down. I went over my plans. She got my military career in infantry and logistics training transferred as elective credits. She laid out my whole plan. She said I should start off slow. ‘Let’s do the basic stuff first. Take one class at a time.’ She didn't pressure me to do four or five classes. It was at my pace.”
When he got brief deployments to Israel, Belgium and Turkey, Coffie said Sessions helped him. “When I had some down time, I would call her and ask what I could do. If I had to leave, I would call her and she would contact professors and say I had been deployed. With UMUC, as long as you tell them what [is] going on, they help you.”
In 2013, Coffie was plucked out of a mission in Turkey to train at Fort Hood, Texas, for a third combat deployment, this time to Afghanistan. But when he got back in 2014, he had to go before the medical board once more. This time, he got a medical discharge. He was given 10 days to leave the base—and the army. He had no place to go.
“I emailed Sonya [Sessions] and told her what was going on,” he said. “She told me to stay calm and to keep her informed on where I was. She would help me as best as she could.”
But landing a job when you are medically discharged is difficult, Coffie said. He found himself back in Virginia Beach with few prospects and a very big concern. He needed to do something to support his two daughters—he had had sole custody since 2006—who lived with his adoptive parents during his time in the military. He feared he would no longer be able to send them money for the girls’ care.
From March to August 2015, he was homeless.
“I had my backpack. Me being an infantry guy, I could survive,” Coffie said. “I had a pair of shoes, a few clothes, my military ID, and I always had some water. I walked around. The only difference between me and another homeless person was [my] military ID so I could go to the commissary and get some food.
“I went to campgrounds so I could get a shower and brush my teeth. I had clippers to keep my hair cut, so I didn’t look like a hobo. It helped me keep my dignity. But when you have lost everything, the PTSD gets to you.”
Coffie said he knew the only way he could get a job was to get a degree. He still had his phone, and he contacted Sessions. She told him to go the education center at Fort Eustis, near Newport News, Virginia, and ask for the UMUC representative. That’s when he met Diane Topping. She arranged for him to get into classes while he was looking for work in the shipyards.
To make a long story short, that’s when Coffie’s life turned around. He got temporary work at the shipyard and caught a bus to attend UMUC classes at Fort Eustis. At a job fair, he met Kelley Dunne, the executive director of Warriors4Wireless, who helped him get training in broadband transmission work. That got Coffie a place to live.
But his challenges weren’t all behind him. His broadband work sent him all over the country on assignments. How was a guy who had always attended on-site classes to finish? Topping and Sessions talked him into trying online classes—and he “got through them” with their encouragement and support, Coffie said.
Things were really looking up until he suffered an epileptic seizure and could no longer do the broadband work. But Kelley got him trained in satellite dish construction, working out of Fairfax, Virginia. And Topping found him, through St. Leo University, the final course he needed—a math course—to complete his degree.
There was one small catch. The St. Leo University course was being taught on the Joint Expeditionary Base at Little Creek, Norfolk, Virginia, about 190 miles from his job in Fairfax. So, all semester long, Coffie would complete work, drive all the way to Little Creek, sleep in his car, attend class, then drive back to Fairfax and work.
“Miss Topping thought I was nuts, but I wanted my degree,” Coffie said. “I got an A in math, which to me was unbelievable. Sonya [Sessions] was really proud of me. Miss Topping couldn’t comprehend how I had the courage to finish school.”
October 13, 2016, was his last day of school.
“It felt really good. I finally made it. All those people who thought I would never amount to anything in life, who thought I was nothing but a thug . . . this menace to society who had to do time, who never amounted to nothing in high school.
“After all of that, and now I have my college degree.” He thought about that for a moment and added, “You never give up. That’s the key.”
Coffie lives in Warrenton, Virginia, with his two daughters and continues to work for Warriors4Wireless.