Thursday, May 27, 2004

Dark days gone, now Amber can shine

Granny, dad help raise a scholar

By William Croyle
Enquirer contributor

Amber Cunigan, one of 15 Holmes High School students to receive an International Baccalaureate diploma this year, was raised by her grandmother, Ercel Cunigan, after Amber's mother abandoned her.
COVINGTON - The odds were against Amber Cunigan a month into her life when her mom abandoned her. She was raised in public housing and attended schools that post some of the lowest state test scores each year.

But Amber has beaten the odds. In fact, she's crushed them.

The 18-year-old Holmes High School graduate was one of only 15 students to receive her diploma from the school's International Baccalaureate program Friday. She ranked 14th out of nearly 200 students in her senior class, finishing with a 3.5 grade-point average, and was awarded a $20,000 scholarship from the Kentucky Housing Association.

Amber will move out of Covington's City Heights neighborhood in September to live on campus at Columbia College, a small arts school in downtown Chicago. It will be the first time she won't be living in public housing.

"I've always wanted to get out of here," said Amber. "It's not that it's bad like everyone thinks public housing is. In fact, it's pretty nice. But I just want a change of things."

Amber was raised by her grandma, Ercel, and father, David, although her father moved out when Amber was 6.

"There was no way she was leaving me," said Ercel. "To her, I was her mommy and she called me that all the time. She's just always been crazy about her granny."

Though separated, Amber said David was a good father. He visited his daughter daily and has supported her financially.

"I pushed it in her head that she could be something," said David, who now lives in Independence. "She may not have had all the fun things other kids had growing up, but I think it has made her a better person."

Amber joined the International Baccalaureate program her junior year. The program has been at Holmes since 1983 and is one of only four in the state and 1,200 worldwide. The college prep courses offered rank higher than advanced placement classes and include a lot of analysis and interpretation in subjects such as English, psychology, philosophy, math and history.

Students are also required to complete 150 hours of community service over two years, which Amber did through school fund-raisers for Bethany House Services in Cincinnati and holiday food drives.

Amber has received $22,000 in scholarships to offset some of the cost of Columbia, which she says totals about $23,000 a year. She will get student loans to pay for the rest.

The biggest prize came from the Kentucky Housing Association, which awarded her a $5,000-a-year scholarship for four years. She was chosen from 48 statewide applicants based on her grades, longevity in public housing and difficulties she's faced in life.

Amber said she is still surprised at the attention she has received.

"I don't understand why," she said. "I guess it's because people don't expect it, given my situation; but I know there are others out there who have had it more difficult than I have."

Amber has won numerous writing and poetry contests in high school and will major in poetry at Columbia.

David said she will be the first in the family to go to college.

"I looked at her and said, 'Poetry, huh?'" her father said with a laugh. "I said, 'Well, you've earned the right to do what you want, so you go for it.'"


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