A life nearly lost is found at Central Piedmont Community College

Alex Tribo is 23 and for a while -- in her "dark period" -- believed she wouldn't live past 20. Now she's graduating from CPCC with an associates degree in science and a 4.0 GPA and in the fall is headed for UNC Chapel Hill, where she plans to pursue a degree in plant biology or physics.
Alex Tribo is 23 and for a while -- in her "dark period" -- believed she wouldn't live past 20. Now she's graduating from CPCC with an associates degree in science and a 4.0 GPA and in the fall is headed for UNC Chapel Hill, where she plans to pursue a degree in plant biology or physics. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Alex Tribo is 23, and, for a time, she believed she wouldn’t live past 20.

During that self-described “dark period,” she developed self-destructive tendencies that moved to drug abuse. She experienced homelessness, and as her life spiraled out of control, she gave up on college.

Now look at her: Thursday, she’ll graduate with an associate degree in science from Central Piedmont Community College and a 4.0 grade point average. Her commencement will feature speaker Jill Biden, the nation’s second lady, who teaches English at Northern Virginia Community College and has taught at community colleges for 30 years.

To her utter amazement, Tribo, raised in Huntersville, became a campus leader. She was executive vice president of the school’s honor society and a representative in student government and participated in the student leadership academy.

In the fall, she will head to UNC-Chapel Hill to pursue a degree in botany, physics or “something in the sciences.”

She’ll go with her confidence – and life – restored.

“When you’re in the middle of making changes, you don’t see the progress you’re making until it’s all over,” Tribo said. “Back then, in my dark period, I was hopeless and directionless. I didn’t have a whole lot of self-respect. I think now I have the appropriate amount of confidence to identify my ambitions, and I’m not afraid to go after them. That’s what CPCC did for me.”

College was a shock

Her professors and advisers would tell her she did it for herself. Hers is a journey that many young people – lost and confused – might find inspiring.

Tribo grew up sheltered in suburban Huntersville, ill-prepared emotionally to go off to college after graduating from high school at SouthLake Christian Academy.

Her first semester at Appalachian State University in 2009 was a disaster. Like many college students experiencing life on their own for the first time, she was tugged in multiple directions. A boyfriend tried to pull her into drugs. Her new friends in the dorm tried to pull her to parties and drinking.

She said she’d always been the obedient daughter – never rebelling in high school.

“I was very much overwhelmed and affected by the people in my life,” she said. “I was a pushover, but I didn’t want to do what they wanted me to do. I began to feel extremely isolated and alone.”

Within a month into her freshman year, she began calling her parents wanting to come home. Her parents, Phil and Kimberly Tribo, encouraged her to stick with it – things would get better.

But one night she called and said: “I have to come home.” “She was having a tough time emotionally,” said Phil Tribo, who works in corporate communications at Bank of America. “We just assumed it was part of the natural process. She’d grown up as a typically suburban kid. We began putting money in a college fund when she was 5, and we thought all you had to do was add water and off she’d go.

“College was a shock to her.”

The troubles increased once she returned to her parents’ house. She searched for an outlet to cope with her mounting stresses.

“Strangely and unfortunately that outlet became a practice of self-mutilation,” Alex Tribo said. Over nine months, she began cutting herself. At a doctor’s appointment, she had to roll up her sleeve, and her father saw the scars.

Her parents put her in therapist sessions.

Nothing helped. “It was tough,” Phil Tribo said. “All you want is for your kids to be happy, healthy and progressing, and at that time, she was doing none of those things.”

Came from compassion

The dark period didn’t end. She transferred her outlet to abusing drugs, mostly marijuana and painkillers.

When her parents found out, they kicked her out – and so she went through a period of homelessness, mostly staying with a friend she’d made at her job at Earth Fare in Charlotte.

“She couldn’t live by our rules,” Phil Tribo said. “We thought we’d done everything right to deal with the issues. We hoped, prayed and cried.”

All the while, she tried classes at CPCC, mostly introductory courses. She either did poorly or dropped out of them – leaving her on academic probation.

Then in summer 2012, her younger sister Audrey came home from East Carolina University and wanted a job at Earth Fare. Growing up, they were close in age but not as sisters. At the supermarket, they worked side by side and began to bond.

One day, as they made sandwiches for customers, Audrey told her sister that she was having a good experience in college and she thought Alex, too, would enjoy and be enriched by college. “Normally, I’m inclined to be dismissive about those things,” Alex said. “But I felt she was saying it from a sense of compassion.”

She went to see her adviser and told her some of her story to get off probation. In fall and spring 2012, she took four classes and made all A’s. Her confidence began to rise with each A.

When she finished her associate degree three years later, she had made straight A’s. She had also become involved on campus. In April, she was in a meeting of the college’s honor society when she checked on her application to UNC-Chapel Hill on the Internet. She saw there was a letter posted.

“I was breathing heavy,” she said. “I was looking for the first few words: ‘We are pleased’ or ‘We are sorry.’ When I saw ‘pleased,’ I shouted out that I got in, and everyone rallied around me. They were happy for me.”

Always seeking answers

Her father knows his daughter’s story could have ended badly. He’s so proud that she “has come a long way from what she was then.”

“Alex’s emergence comes from those struggles that almost took her,” he said. “But she got through it, and now I think she’s ready for college. I credit Central Piedmont for boosting her confidence and getting her ready.”

One who helped was Jennifer Conway, a CPCC student life coordinator. The two had many conversations. Whenever Tribo self-doubted, or had an academic – or “existential or identity” – issue, she’d go to Conway. “CPCC might be the first place where students like Alex feel like they can be successful,” Conway said. “Alex really blossomed here.”

This week, Tribo knocked on Conway’s door for another discussion. She wanted Conway’s insight on what she should pursue at Chapel Hill.

“What if I’m a theoretical physicist?” she asked.

“Are you really going to be happy if you can never know the answer?” Conway responded. “You’re always seeking for the answer.”

“OK, then I’ll be an experimental physicist.”

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Other Charlotte-area commencements

Charlotte School of Law – 1 p.m. Saturday, NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Johnson C. Smith University – 8 a.m. Sunday, Irwin Belk Stadium.

Davidson College – 10 a.m. Sunday, front campus.

Johnson & Wales University – 10 a.m. May 23, Time Warner Cable Arena.

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