It was a frigid day in December 2015 as Benjamin Coker waved to the crowd watching the Christmas parade in Dacula, Georgia.
Representing Georgia Gwinnett College as Mr. GGC, he rode in a convertible with Miss GGC, Bethany D'Alessandro, ’16, exercise science. As the car rounded a turn and Coker scanned the people waving back at him, he was shocked to see his father standing among them.
That summer, Samuel Coker had been diagnosed with a terminal case of stomach cancer. He should have been at home, yet there he was in the freezing cold, smiling proudly at his son.
The significance of the moment was not lost on the younger Coker, who knew how precious little time they had left together.
Coker planned to go to medical school to become a doctor. He had enrolled at GGC that fall, intending to study biology for two years and then transfer to another school. His father’s diagnosis not only changed family life, it changed his college and career plans.
“As I saw my dad go through treatments, I saw that nurses were the ones providing direct patient care,” he said. “That’s when I realized that what I really wanted to do was nursing.”
Coker always had an interest in health care and service to others. During high school, he worked as a life guard for the Collins Hill Aquatic Center. He also taught life guard courses for Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation, where he worked as a as a recruiter, trainer and assistant manager.
After his father became ill, Coker contributed much of his earnings toward supporting his family.
“I tried to relieve some of my father’s worries,” he said.
Coker also helped care for his father at home. At one point, he shared with his father his decision to become a nurse instead of a doctor.
Mustering up strength to talk, his father said, “I know you will do well. Trust in God.”
After his father passed away early in his junior year, Coker understandably struggled. GGC’s nursing program is highly selective, accepting only about 60 students a year. Coker didn’t make the cut on his first attempt.
Deeply involved in campus life by then, Coker was a member of the Elite Scholars Program, a senator in the Student Government Association, a committee chair within the Greenlight Activities Board and a resident advisor. He had found a home at GGC and built a large GGC support system, including friends and faculty mentors, who advised him to take a break.
“I had to take some time for myself,” Coker said. He remained in school and took courses in business. “Eventually, I started to find myself again.”
Coker was accepted into the nursing program the next year, and graduated in the fall of 2019 with honors and with a minor in business. He plans to get a job in cardiac nursing, and to later pursue a graduate degree and a career in nursing administration.
“I like to lead and help people to be the best versions of themselves,” he said. “Their win is my win.”
As a nursing administrator, he said he foresees himself helping other nurses be the best they can be.
Reflecting on how his plans changed, Coker noted that like so many students who enroll with plans to transfer, he had “fallen in love” with GGC. He had such a positive experience at the school that his brother, George, is now enrolled as a freshman and also plans to go into nursing.
“Life takes you places you don’t know you want to go,” said Coker.
Read more about the college, its student and alumni in GGC's Engage Magazine.