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Toby Dewayne Daughtery, a graduate of Pulaski Technical College (Arkansas), speaks at the 2011 Achieving the Dream Strategy Institute about his life-changing experience at the college. (Photo: Emilio Blanco)
INDIANAPOLIS — If Toby Dewayne Daughtery writes a biography, the title will be “My Heroes at My Community College.”
His college: Pulaski Technical College in Arkansas. His heroes: Pulaski’s faculty and staff members who patiently explained financial aid and registration and in countless other ways helped him transform himself from a prison inmate into a straight-A student.
“If this is a dream, I pray no one wakes me up too soon,” Daughtery said during his alternately humorous and heart-wrenching speech at the opening of the 2011 Achieving the Dream (ATD) Strategy Institute this week.
Daughtery is the first student to give a keynote address at ATD and the 1,400 people—mostly community college educators and ATD funders—in the audience responded enthusiastically with applause at key points during his speech and a standing ovation when he finished.
“You are appreciated. When I look at your faces, I see your value,” he told the community college educators repeating what Pulaski Tech personnel conveyed to him.
The nontraditional student
Daughtery enrolled at Pulaski Tech four months after he finished a two-year-eight-month-and-22-day sentence for marijuana possession. He read 285 books while in prison, but said he knew nothing about financial aid or the other intricacies of being a college student before he enrolled.
While he was determined to change his life, Daughtery needed the understanding of community college personnel to succeed just as, he said, do teens with sagging jeans, single moms, lesbian and gay students, and other people who do not fit the model-student mold yet who manage to find their way to community colleges.
“I don’t belong in prison. I belong in college. I belong right here where I’m standing,” Daughtery said.
His exhortation reminded his audience of just how thin the line can be between productivity and good citizenship, and the tragic loss of human potential.
Daughtery recounted that his one brush with police since his release from prison occurred one night when he was leaving the library. Rushing home, the books he checked out for a research paper slid across the back seat of his car as he turned a corner too quickly.
When the police officer—who knew him from his former pursuits—pulled him over, Daughtery handed him his license and his Pulaski Tech student ID card.
After the officer told Daughtery he was glad to see he had turned his life around, Daughtery said two things were clear to him: “For so many years I had been my own worst enemy, and … I could not be arrested for reading books.”
A new direction
Daughtery received his associate of arts degree from Pulaski Tech in 2009; he had a 3.91 grade point average (GPA). He received the Shelby Breedlove Transfer Scholarship when he started at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in fall 2009. He has earned a 4.0 GPA in his baccalaureate studies that include a major in sociology and minors in creative writing and studio art.
Daughtery credits the love of his mother and grandmother with helping him reset the path of his life.
“Baby, being smart is not good enough,” Daughtery recalled his grandmother saying when she urged him to make better choices years ago.
He learned how important his success in college was to his mother when he arrived at the hospital to take her home following breast cancer surgery, and she wanted to know if he had attended class that day.
A passionate artist all his life, during his speech Daughtery described a beating he endured as a child when he refused to let his stepfather whack his right hand with a piece of wood. He hopes someday to create a not-for-profit organization that helps disadvantaged youths embrace their creative passions, and in some other way reduce the number of people who go to prison.
Daughtery, who rode in an airplane for the first time Tuesday when he flew from Arkansas to Indiana, likens his higher education experience to a helicopter: “With it I can land anywhere and be successful.”
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges