FREDERICK Md. — Fear of failure nearly became Amber Chrobot's biggest downfall.
As a high schooler, she could barely face math. She was home-schooled, and family health problems combined with her stubborn attitude provided the formula she needed to drop out.
"It paralyzed me," Chrobot said of algebra. "My brain would freeze. I wasn't comprehending anything."
Now 26, Chrobot has earned her diploma through a general education development program at Frederick Community College. Last week, she was a featured speaker at the school's Adult Education Program graduation.
Monday marks the start of her second semester as a part-time student at FCC, where she is working on an associate degree in psychology. She dreams of earning a master's degree in social work.
Still, Chrobot's life could have turned out very differently.
She married Marine Lance Cpl. Jordan Chrobot two days before her 21st birthday and moved to Camp Lejeune, N.C. The couple wanted a family, and Amber wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. But then the course of her life suddenly changed.
Jordan Chrobot, 24, was shot in the chest while on foot patrol in Helmand province in Afghanistan. He died Sept. 26, 2009.
"At 23, you don't expect to be a widow and having to reinvent your life," Amber said.
'I'm not living'
After dropping out of high school, Amber remained with her family in Walkersville and worked as a nanny.
In her early 20s, she built a life with Jordan, whom she met years earlier through a mutual friend. Friendship blossomed into love, and Jordan proposed during a walk at Baker Park a few days before he was scheduled to ship out to boot camp.
At Camp Lejeune, Amber built a support network of military wives; they cooked and shopped together.
Between trainings and deployments, Jordan's schedule was so busy and varied that she wanted to spend every fleeting second with him.
She made no effort to get her high school diploma.
Then the three uniformed Marines showed up at her doorstep.
"You know, they don't come to your door for any other reason," Amber said.
She returned to Frederick County to be with her family and near Jordan's. For the first few months, she was content to sleep and grieve.
It took years to figure out how to pick up the pieces.
When Jordan was alive, the couple had talked about what Amber would do if something happened to him.
"He had always just said 'just live, just live.' ... It just kind of hit me one day -- I'm not living," she said. "I'm just sitting here, stuck in this memory, not necessarily moving on from him, but, you know, moving on from the shock of it and the life we had planned."
'Out of a fog'
Amber's parents wanted her to finish high school, and she soon realized that she had to get a diploma. She could use Jordan's GI Bill benefits to help with college. She attended an information session at FCC and realized: "I really want to make myself successful and give it a try at least."
That meant facing the very thing that caused her to drop out years earlier: math.
"The first day, I learned the basics of algebra, and I actually understood it," she said, "I was just like, I don't know if it's because I'm older and I want this so bad, or I actually understand it."
She hit the books and prayed. Building on her progress proved to Amber that she had the strength to achieve her goal after years of being plagued by doubts.
"I just figured I'd save myself the trouble of failure and not try at all," she said of her earlier self.
According to teacher Jenna Freeman, Amber is one of the most dedicated students she has seen come through FCC's adult education program. Freeman taught Amber while she studied for her GED diploma last spring and Amber took additional course work to ensure she'd reach her goals.
"She definitely sets the standard," Freeman said.
She did so well in the program that she became eligible for scholarships. She immediately enrolled in college courses at FCC.
Jordan would have been "so proud," Amber said.
"He knew it would make me feel better about myself," she said.
Though she knows she will struggle with lifelong grief over losing Jordan, Amber is building the foundation of her own success. She began dating again and is engaged to a man she met through a friend. The couple have not yet set a wedding date, she said.
"I've come out of a fog," she said, "and that was with a lot of prayer, definitely."