Drugs, detours over for 29-year-old graduating from RCCC
By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY — Education was the beginning of the end for Karen Reynolds.
The end of drug use, the end of homelessness, the end of hopelessness.
The 29-year-old Salisbury resident says she experienced more than a few detours before landing at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College in 2009.
She began dabbling in elicit drugs at the age of 15. And by the time she graduated from Central High School in Pageland, S.C., in 2009, she was a full-blown addict.
“I continued using drugs for years and years and years,” she said.
Reynolds eventually left South Carolina for Monroe, where she lived on the streets and in motels.
Facing several drug charges, she fled to Philadelphia with a friend in 2006.
“Basically, I felt like if I stuck around I was just going to die,” Reynolds said.
Unable to find a job in Pennsylvania, Reynolds began taking classes at Goldey-Beacom College in Wilmington, Del. It didn’t take long for her to go from taking a couple of classes to becoming a full-time student.
“School was the start of everything,” she said. “It gave me something to occupy my mind. Instead of concentrating on drugs, I had something that was positive to concentrate on.”
As she wrapped up coursework, Reynolds knew she had reached a plateau.
She decided to head back to North Carolina.
“I just realized it was time to come home,” she said. “In order for me to get my life back on track, I had to face my problems.”
Reynolds assumed that she’d end up behind bars after turning herself in, but a judge saw she had turned her life around.
“They threw out every single charge. That’s a miracle” she said. “That’s nobody but God, it was nothing I did.”
With her charges dismissed, Reynolds decided to continue her education at Rowan-Cabarrus.
Reynolds chose to pursue accounting because of her niche for the subject in high school.
“It’s not easy, but I get it and I enjoy it,” she said.
While attending classes full time, she started working as a waitress at El Patron Mexican Grill and Cantina when the restaurant first opened about a year ago.
“Karen is great, she’s such a hard worker,” co-owner Angel Ruiz said. “Customers ask for her because she’s so friendly.”
But Reynolds said her past has created a hurdle when it comes to finding jobs.
She remembers being hired and fired within a week after one local business received her criminal background.
“That really hit me hard because I wondered if I was wasting my time in school,” she said.
But Reynolds said her accounting instructor at the time, Robin Turner, didn’t let her quit.
“She said, ‘Don’t ever give up, you’ve come too far now. You’re going to get a job,’ ” she said.
Reynolds said Turner told her “once you get that opportunity you’re going to go straight up.”
Turner said Reynolds has been a very determined and dedicated student.
“Her hard work and desire to change brought excitement to the classroom,” she said. “Karen is very focused now and will be giving it everything she can to become an inspiration to others.
“She is proof positive that one can turn their life around and live their dream.”
Excelling both in and out of class
Reynolds also got involved outside the classroom by joining Phi Beta Lambda, a career and technical student organization, after a push from her instructor Martha Cranford.
Cranford said she wanted to introduce her to real world skills, diversity and networking.
“She was motivated and ready to try something new,” she said. “She is very inquisitive, always asking questions nd is very willing to learn more.”
Reynolds ended up placing second in sales presentation in Phi Beta Lambda’s state competition this year, beating out students from other community colleges and four-year universities.
“It really felt good to be part of something like that,” she said.
Reynolds received another accolade this year. She was named the college’s 2011 Academic Excellence Award recipient, maintaining a 3.8 GPA throughout her time at Rowan-Cabarrus.
She’ll receive special recognition during the college’s commencement ceremony today.
Reynolds attributes much of her success at Rowan-Cabarrus to her newfound sense of confidence.
“I know that I’m smart and I wanted to prove that,” she said. “I’m not dumb, I’m not ignorant, I’m not a failure.
“I wanted to learn and I wanted to do the best I could.”
And Reynolds said the confidence grew from the support of instructors like Turner and Cranford.
“My instructors were very one-on-one, they have really helped me a lot,” she said.
Reynolds’ family will be in attendance for today’s commencement exercises.
“It feels so good to know what my mother can be proud of me because I’ve put her through so much,” she said.
After receiving her associate degree, Reynolds will begin looking for a job with a local accounting firm.
Learning from the past
Reynolds said although she’s moved beyond her past, she doesn’t want to forget it.
In fact, she wants to share it. “I feel like good and evil have a balance,” she said. “I always feel like I had to go through the things I went through so that other people don’t have to.”
Reynolds said her faith has been unwavering through it all.
“Believe it or not I always had God, even when I was on the streets,” she said. “I always felt like when the time was right, He would give me the strength I needed.
“He did, and I haven’t looked back since.”
But Reynolds said it still feels too good to be true sometimes.
“I never thought my life would go beyond selling drugs, using drugs and basically living on the streets. I thought that was my life,” she said. “But you know what, it’s not and I’m glad that it’s not.”
She also wants others to remember that they don’t have to accept their lives.
“Even if you fall, even if you fail, get back up and try again,” she said. “If you constantly keep trying, it’s eventually going to work out.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.
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