Education
5:00 am
Mon April 9, 2012

Earning A Degree, And A New Life

Dropping out of high school is usually a lifelong ticket to a low-paying job, or worse. As more and more businesses require employees to have at least a high-school degree, those who do not are getting left behind. In response, public schools, community colleges, and universities are creating new ways for drop-outs to re-enter the education system. As part of our American Graduate series, Dave DeWitt tells the story of a student who found one of these new roads to success.

Dave DeWitt: School always came easy to Roy Dawson.

Roy Dawson: I can’t really remember ever studying for a test or anything like that, you know.

Roy recalls his early academic life while sitting in a back booth at a strip mall Mexican restaurant in Burlington, a few miles from where he grew up.

All the way through his first two years in high school, Roy was smart enough to get by with ease. But life itself was a little bit harder. Around the time he began his junior year at Eastern Alamance High School, his mom, Delores, started losing the feeling in her arms and legs. Soon, she was bed-ridden. So Roy did the only thing he could, he dropped out of high school to get a job at Boston Sandwich Shop and take care of her.

But he was smart enough to know that dropping out was a bad long-term strategy. So the day after he left high school, he enrolled at Alamance Community College’s Adult High School degree program.

Roy Dawson: There you can clock in and out so that you can work and go to school around your schedule. I think you can go from 7:30 in the morning until 9 at night. So you can work through the day and go to school at night.

When he wasn’t working or going to school, he was home, taking care of his mom, sometimes sleeping at the foot of her bed.

Delores Dawson: Oh, I would not have made it without him. No. I was diagnosed with neuropathy. Was in the bed. Couldn’t get out of bed. Couldn’t even feed myself. I couldn’t even lift my hands, my arms.

Roy got his high school degree in 1999, the same year he would have if he’d stayed at Eastern Alamance. And with his mom still sick, he bounced around in a series of jobs.

Roy Dawson: …fast food, delivering meat on a meat truck, roofing, was assistant manager in a lube shop, worked in factories in Honda power equipment, maintenance at a hotel, cooking in a hotel, waiting tables, dishwasher, a lot of various jobs that didn’t really have a future in them.During those 8 years, his mom slowly got better. When she went on disability, he went back to Alamance Community College, this time with an eye on an associate’s degree in computer science. One of his first assignments came in an English class, write a personal essay. The teacher made him read it aloud.

Roy Dawson: And like the class loved it. So then, when I left the classroom the professor from the class comes running down the hall and asks me if I was interested in English.

Maria Baskin: Yeah, I said to him I thought he was college material.

Maria Baskin was Roy’s English teacher.

Baskin: You know usually we get excited about great minds. But this one was sort of great everything. And it was lovely to be around him and to listen to him and just watch him bloom and evolve right in front of your eyes. Because he just ate it all up.

Baskin suggested that Roy enroll in a program called C-STEP. At the time, it was a fairly-new effort to identify talented community college students and groom them for admission to UNC Chapel Hill. Even after two stellar academic years at Alamance Community College, waiting for acceptance to UNC was rough.

Delores Dawson: We were waiting for that for so long. I was losing my hair. And so was he.

Roy got in, joining about 100 other students in the program. The early results for C-STEP are encouraging, and they were for Roy, as well. But then he got what, for him, was a demoralizing grade, a B-minus in modern political thought.

Roy Dawson: It was terrible. It was devastating. It was really rough. It really hurt my pride a lot. I put even more effort into the next semester and it picked up and I never got a B minus again.

Roy flourished at Carolina. He met his future wife, and applied to law school. After another anxious waiting period, he learned that he was, in fact, good enough again, this time for UNC’s Law School.

Roy Dawson: Once I got to A.C.C., I saw that I could do well and really saw that a college education and doing well in college is the ticket to being successful and being able to provide for your family the way you’d like to.

And Roy’s success is not his alone.

Delores Dawson: Proud, elated, words just can’t describe it. He’s really the only one of my three kids that’s really gone this far and the only one in the family that went to college and become, you know, a success story.

Roy Dawson’s success story isn’t over yet. The prospect of taking out 120-thousand dollars worth of student loans is enough to give anyone pause, especially if you’re not too far removed from delivering meat on a truck. But Roy says he’s confident his future is bright.

Probably not a good idea to bet against him.