The Hub Finding strength to succeed: How an AU grad went from homeless and hopeless to HR pro, mom, and bodybuilder

Finding strength to succeed: How an AU grad went from homeless and hopeless to HR pro, mom, and bodybuilder

By: Laura Connor and Bryan Alary

Celia Koehler overcame drug addiction on journey that led to an MBA from AU and creating opportunities for others

Celia Koehler (Master of Business Administration ’23) isn’t one to back away from a challenge—or give up on a dream.

As a girl growing up in Edmonton, she always dreamed of going to university and pursuing an education so that she could “have the greatest impact on as many people as possible.” But as is often the case with dreams, when you wake up reality can look very different.

In high school, Koehler’s life started to tumble out of her control. Like many teens, she started experimenting with alcohol and drugs, pot mostly. Her home life was a series of conflicts as she and her mother frequently butted heads. One day when she was 16, she pushed too far and hurled an expletive at her mother from across the house.

This time, there would be no apologies, no reconciliation.

“She said, ‘That’s it. You’re done.’ That was the start of my homelessness,” Koehler remembers.

Journey from addiction

The teen was dropped off at the Edmonton Youth Emergency Shelter and left to fend for herself. It was the start of a journey that would lead to a near-fatal addiction to crystal meth, followed by a bit of happenstance that helped turn her life around and to emerge stronger in the process.

Today, Koehler is not only sober and a proud mother of 2, she’s also a competitive bodybuilder. She works at her dream job as a human resources professional with Amazon Canada where she uses her experiences to help others understand that they can accomplish and overcome anything. And as of this week, she’s also a graduate of Athabasca University’s online MBA program.

“My 16-year-old self wouldn’t believe that I’m here,” she says.

Celia Koehler turns 17 and blows out candles on a cake
Celia Koehler was homeless when she celebrated her 17th birthday.

Homeless in high school

From the moment that her mother dropped her off at the youth shelter, Koehler’s life continued to spiral. She started using drugs more often—crystal meth in particular—and soon was kicked out of the shelter for using.

She lived on the streets wherever she could find shelter, sometimes by breaking into a stranger’s car or sleeping by the entrance of a school. And yet not once did she consider dropping out, she says. Instead, she would store her clothes in a locker at a local swimming pool, where she would also shower before going to class.

There were attempts at reconciliation with her mother, including counselling, but moving back home was short-lived.

“We’re both headstrong women … we just couldn’t work it out.”

Back on the streets, her drug use escalated and Koehler remembers feeling helpless, alone, and disconnected.

“I do remember one day when all I could smell was burnt toast, and I continued to do drugs that day. I knew I was going to die.”

An unexpected discovery

That’s exactly what could have happened if it wasn’t for a bit of chance. Her sister’s fiancé discovered that their father, Bill Hachey, had created a website with the goal of finding his children.

Koehler had never met her dad let alone seen a picture of him. After making contact, they arranged to meet in Edmonton. She had planned to rest the week before the meeting, but instead ended up using drugs the entire time.

When they finally met, she weighed less than 100 pounds. There was no hiding the fact that she was addicted to drugs.

Concerned for her welfare, Hachey offered a place to stay with him and his family in Red Deer—under the condition that she quit using.

It was exactly what Koehler needed: time and space to get clean, and for her body to recover.

“I needed someone who would give me that.”

Celia Koehler with her grandfather around the time she got clean
Celia Koehler with her grandfather around the time she got clean.

Getting sober

The journey to sobriety wasn’t easy. Koehler didn’t go through a 12-step program, but instead went cold turkey and “suffered through it.”

It took about 3 months of mostly just sleeping and eating until she was able to get through a normal day like everyone else. Not using drugs was like not breathing.

“Every moment you’re waiting to breathe again.

“It’s hard because it’s not really a choice to not do them when you’re on them, but it’s a choice to not do them when you’re not on them.”

Pursuing a lifelong dream

Throughout her recovery, Koehler knew she wanted to go back to school and pursue her dream of university even though she didn’t have a high school diploma. She started taking college courses that did not require a diploma and eventually transferred to Red Deer Polytechnic, which had a psychology program that was transferrable to the University of Calgary.

In 2009, she graduated with an arts degree, a double major in psychology and sociology. After initially struggling to enter the workforce, she decided to pursue a career in human resources. Just like her childhood dream, she felt the profession would allow her to help as many people as possible.

While working for a hotel and resort, Koehler says she felt the need to advance her job-related skills. So, she earned a University Certificate in Human Resources and Labour Relations from AU.

Celia Koehler and her children

Taking on the greatest challenge

With her life and career on track, Koehler took on the greatest challenge of all—motherhood. She’s the mother of 2 boys, 8 and 12, both of whom have disabilities.

“It’s definitely the hardest thing I’ve done in my entire life—and if you think through all the difficulties I’ve had in my life, these are big hurdles,” she says.

“Having kids is the hardest thing, but honestly it is the most rewarding thing. My kids are everything to me”

A lifelong learner at heart, Koehler wanted to take her career to the next level, and to prove to herself that she could complete an MBA. As a single mom of 2 kids, she couldn’t take time off from work to attend classes on a physical campus. She chose AU for its online delivery, flexibility and also because she enjoyed her past experience with the university.

Online MBA and bodybuilding

“I had a good experience at Athabasca University [with my HR certificate], so I thought it was something that I could do while I had all these other things were going on in my life.”

Life wasn’t done throwing challenges her way. When COVID-19 hit, she got laid off at work. To keep her family afloat, she took on 2 part-time jobs—as a personal trainer and in sales. Personal training held a lot of appeal as she was just getting into bodybuilding. Her marriage had recently ended, and she wanted a change.

Koehler placed second in her first competition and from there was hooked.

“If I’m dealing with life or if I’m upset about something, I can throw some weight around … and I’m getting physical results from it. It has been therapeutic going to the gym.”

Athabasca University online MBA grad Celia Koehler displaying her physique

Becoming an Amazonian leader

Though Koehler has enjoyed a successful career in HR, she always had a goal of working for Amazon Canada. In fact, she applied to the company a dozen times with no success. On her 13th attempt, she updated her resume to indicate she was about to graduate from AU’s MBA program.

The program not only helped Koehler get her foot in the door, but it’s also been invaluable in her day-to-day role. She learned to think from a higher level and combine data from different sources to problem-solve.

“I don’t believe I would have got this role without my MBA,” she says.

Giving opportunities to those who need it

At Amazon Canada, Koehler helped the company launch Canada’s most technologically advanced fulfillment centre in Acheson. Through the launch, she also took on the direct supervision of 17 staff.

One of the things she loves most about her career is that, as an HR professional, she gets to open doors for others. She believes strongly in diversity and inclusion and providing opportunities to those who need it the most.

“I give them back what I needed at a different time,” she said.

Embracing the past for a brighter future

In her work, and as a mom, Koehler doesn’t hide from her past or her mistakes. In fact, she embraces them as a teaching opportunity recognizing that she has 2 little humans  at home who need and look up to her.

“I feel it’s important for them to learn that it’s normal to make mistakes, and that we shouldn’t hide them.”

When she was at her lowest in her teens, family helped pull her from the darkness so it’s fitting that today, as a mom, it’s her own children who keep her grounded. She leads by example and tells her children to have the courage to face obstacles and to persevere through obstacles.

“If you can find a way through it, then you’ll become better for it.”

Athabasca University MBA grad Celia Koehler

Words of wisdom for future MBA students

When she first started post-secondary, Koehler’s grandmother offered this advice: “There are going to be times when you want to quit or you want to go to a party with your friends, or you just don’t want to do your homework. You need to just do it.”

And that’s what she did. Koehler kept moving forward and today offers this advice to students:
“Do as much work as possible, as quickly as you can because you never know what’s going to happen in a week or 2. The further ahead you can make yourself, the better. Even if you didn’t need the extra time.”

She also offers advice on how to avoid letting the past be an obstacle for your future.

“Who you are going to be in the future is determined by the choices that you make today. It has nothing to do with who you were in the past. Because me today has nothing to do with that, right? It’s what I choose today. And that’s going to take me into tomorrow.”

Celebrating Convocation 2023!

Read more stories about AU students and grads as part of our Convocation 2023 coverage.

  • June 16, 2023
Guest Blog from:
Laura Connor and Bryan Alary