MSU Success Story

Murray, KY – Someone with a criminal record may find that trying to start their life over again is an uphill battle. Carrie Pond brings us this story about a non-traditional student at Murray State University who overcame the odds. Her name is Debbie, and thanks to a local charity's support and her own determination to use her mistakes to help others, Debbie graduates tomorrow... with honors.


Debbie's first experience at Murray State took place when she was in high school in the late 70s. As a senior, she enrolled in classes at the university. But Debbie put her plans on hold after marrying and having three children. She stayed at home to take care of the kids, beginning work after they were in school. Then, as she tells it, she took a wrong turn in her life.

And I ended up in trouble. I ended up in jail. It was for drugs, and I spent 6 months there. And while I was in there my husband was killed, my kids were took away from me. So that gave me a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do.

Debbie was charged with a class D Felony. While in jail she enrolled in a work-release program, helping out at Angel's Attic, a local thrift shop. Debbie says she grew to appreciate the charity's mission and decided to stay on permanently when she was granted parole. Angel's Attic Manager Jan Basile says at the time, Debbie was the first work-release inmate the non-profit had put on payroll after being released.

She needed a job. We needed somebody like her who could take over and know what they were doing. And so she was a perfect fit.

After spending about a year getting her bearings, Debbie decided to do something she'd always wanted to accomplish get her degree. And now, thanks to her work at Angel's Attic, Debbie knew just what she wanted to study. She declared an Outdoor Recreation major with a minor in Non-profit and Youth Leadership. Debbie says sometimes it seemed impossible to juggle everything.

I honest to God don't know how I did it. It was hard enough to come back after all these years, but once I got my footing I just didn't want to quit. I knew I wouldn't go back if I did.

Debbie says these difficulties made her more determined to finish. And she didn't just coast through classes she graduates with a 3-point-3-2 grade point average and has been named a service learning scholar in her major. But just when it seemed graduation was just over the horizon, Debbie encountered another snag because of her record, she had trouble landing an internship required for her graduation. Professor Mike Gowen says instead of giving up, Debbie pushed on.

One little thing can't take all the worth out of that experience. And this bump in the road is no different the ones she's gotten past. And it's unfortunate because she has progressed in so many ways that she's past that herself, but in some situations it's hard to be past that because of the situations that are in place.

Jan Basile says overcoming these "bumps in road" has changed the way Debbie carries herself.

She was kind of beat down when she got out of jail. She was beat down "I can't do anything" type of thing. And obviously, she's proven to herself more than anyone else that she can set a goal for herself and do it.

And she has done it. After a few disconnects, Debbie's landed an internship at Lake Barkley as a recreation program assistant. She says she's excited to get some hands on experience, but acknowledges it's going to be time consuming she'll be working 32 hours a week at Angel's Attic and 24 hours a week at her internship, 7 days a week. In the future, Debbie hopes to begin working with at-risk youth. She hopes her background will help kids identify with her. Gowen thinks Debbie's history, which he says has at times made her devalue herself, will actually uniquely qualify her.

I think that's one of the things that she'll bring to the population she works with is that strength. I mean, she's found it in herself so if she can help other people find that strength during rough times then I think that's why she's here.

Debbie says she'll continue working at Angel's Attic until she finds work as fulfilling and important as her work there. But no matter what the next step may be, Debbie says the most important thing is that after she walks across that stage, she'll have her degree. And that's a start.