Having graduated from Bristol Community College this May, our Community College Woman of the Year is eager to keep going.
For more than 60 years, Glamour has honored exceptional college women across the U.S. This year, we turned our focus to students exclusively enrolled in community college. Katherine Haley's story is a powerful one: having overcome obstacles that included losing both her parents, a decade of drug abuse, and rampant self doubt, she graduated at the top of the class and will heading to the Ivy League.
Close your eyes, spin a globe, point to where it stops, just go. Has there ever been a more clichéd metaphor for unbridled freedom? But also, has anyone ever really done that? Katherine Haley did, except when she closed her eyes one day in 2018, she didn’t have a globe. She had a list of sober houses. And her freedom wasn’t a result of wanderlust; it came from being a young woman in the grips of active drug addiction. Her finger landed on Taunton, Massachusetts, where her recovery—and her path to Bristol Community College and, this fall, Brown University—began.
Haley, 29, says she’d been to substance abuse recovery meetings in other cities but there was just something about Taunton.
“I showed up with matted hair and a trash bag full of clothes and messed-up teeth. Starved. A skeleton. Looking a straight mess. And acting a mess. And immediately I was loved.” She tells me that when people in her recovery group found out she was walking 45 minutes to meetings, they insisted on driving her. That if she didn't come to group, her phone would blow up with texts and calls from people working to keep her accountable. “You don’t get that everywhere,” she says.
Haley’s story is a remarkable one that naturally lends itself to being told. It’s clear after several conversations with her that she needs to be the one to do some of the telling.
“I grew up in a household with two parents who were addicts. I’d say addiction is in my family, but so is recovery. Both my parents got clean and had long-term clean time. They were both incredible people. Unfortunately, by the time they got clean, I had already started my own active addiction. So, drinking, using drugs. I saw it as a viable coping mechanism. And as I got older, it progressed. I went from using alcohol to taking pills to being an IV heroin addict. And at the end of my active addiction, I had lost everything. For a long time, I maintained—I still got my hair and nails done, I worked 40 hours a week, I didn’t hold a sign, I wasn’t homeless, I had a car. I was able to make the outside look okay while the inside was a dumpster fire.
“As I continued to use, bad things happened. My mental health deteriorated. I eventually ended up losing both my parents while I was in active addiction, and that started the spiral. After my mom passed away, I lost my apartment, my car, my license, my job. I was living in a walk-in closet at one point, just from a random person on Craigslist. I would jump from what we call trap houses. Finally—and this is how socially unacceptable I was—the person whose house I was staying at who I was supplying drugs for said, ‘Katie, you have to leave.’ Even other addicts were like, ‘We can’t be around you.’”
Fine, she thought. I’ll get treatment. But the government assistance check kept coming every month, a godsend but also a roadblock. “It's just a reality of the life. I’m back out doing what I'm doing as soon as I get my money.” But one day the check came late and without any other options, Haley walked into a treatment center seven days before her 26th birthday. “It was like waking up behind the wheel of a car going 90. My parents are gone, I have no relationship with my brother. My little sister is begging for any female adults and I’m not present. So I got a modicum, just a tiny bit, of willingness and clarity.”
And that’s how she found herself in Taunton, surrounded by good people who stuck by her even when her early days in recovery were rocky, when she says she wasn’t doing her step work and thought maybe she could handle a couple of drinks or some weed—something she knows now she personally can’t do, though she emphasizes her belief that there are as many paths to recovery as there are recovering addicts.
With the newfound clarity of eventual sobriety, Haley turned her attention to education, something she says was always important to her in an abstract way growing up in Nashua, New Hampshire. She suffered from dysgraphia, a learning disability, in elementary school and as she got older was written off by some teachers who thought she was a “waste case” who just wasn’t showing up to school, when in actuality she was playing caretaker to her younger sister and couldn’t always leave her mother during active addiction. Still, she was in AP classes her freshman and sophomore years (“Kind of surprised everybody, I think”), and when her own addiction progressed during her last two years of high school, she dropped out and joined night school in order to graduate.
College wasn’t on the immediate table, but it was always there on the horizon, a distant option for a future version of herself.
“I always said if I could just get clean, I would go to college. But I said it like how people say they want to go to the moon. It’s for better people. It’s never going to happen for me, but man, wouldn’t it be nice? And so, I got clean and then I was like, ‘Well, now we’re here.’”
A willingness to learn was always there, and Haley says both her parents were deeply intelligent people despite not having formal education. “My father dropped out of school in middle school, but he loved Carl Sagan'’s Cosmos. He was teaching me about string theory when I was 14.” Even during her darkest days, Haley says, she always carried with her a bag filled with books she collected along the way, and she relied on them as an escape. But as her brain became clearer, it wanted more.
She applied to Bristol Community College in Fall River, Massachusetts, and got in, but she was concerned about not getting financial aid because of stories she’d heard about not being granted assistance if you have a criminal record, even misdemeanors. Luckily, though, aid came through, on a day she remembers clearly. “I cried and I said, ‘This is so amazing.’ I just so badly wanted to share it with my parents.” She went to a meeting in Taunton that day and says that by the end, 30 or 40 people lined up to hug her and tell her they were proud. “It wasn’t a replacement, but my God, it was such a gift.”
At Bristol, Haley excelled. A substance abuse counseling program was the goal, which would take less than a year and only required three classes a semester. The problem: to receive full financial aid in Massachusetts, she needed to be a full-time student. “How about you just switch to a psychology major?” her advisor asked. “You still get the certification, and then you can just stop when you get it.”
But after she got a taste of formal education, stopping was not an option. “Just being in a classroom, listening, writing papers. I fell in love with academia,” she says. “To have a guided education, to feel like I actually had a purpose. I was like, ‘I can't stop.’”
Haley maintained a steady 4.0 grade point average and set her sights on the University of Massachusetts. It was her advisor that, last year, eventually floated the idea of also applying to some top-tier schools as well, even at 27 years old. Between her nagging imposter syndrome and the issue of her criminal record, she dismissed the idea immediately. “You never know,” her advisor said.
“Going to UMass would have been a dream. Beyond what I thought was ever possible for me. But I said, ‘You know, we’re in a pandemic.’ I wasn’t working, I had all this extra time. ‘I'm just going to throw this net into the water and see what happens.’” Haley said she applied to 16 schools, including several Ivy League colleges and universities, all of which offered programs for nontraditional students.
Haley graduated from Bristol in May as the valedictorian of her class, and she will attend Brown University this fall as part of its Returning Undergraduate Education program.
Hearing Haley talk about her future is inspiring. She plans to major in psychology and hopes to contribute to academic journals and become a professor. She has started writing her memoirs. She is also remarkably forthcoming about the residuum of substance abuse, which never truly goes away. “It finds ways to manifest in other areas of my life,” she tells me. “At first it was Tinder, so that wasn't super healthy, but it was, ‘Someone noticed me! I need to be the center of attention!’” Then there’s the issue of food, which she says she’s working on with a therapist. “My body does not want me to lose weight. I was food insecure as a child and then I was starving myself during my own active addiction.” She pauses. “What is it? The body keeps the score?”
As our conversation wound down, I was curious about what Haley does for fun. She’s worked so hard—in addition to her studies she’s a waitress—and overcome so much; what does letting loose look like these days? Beauty, she says, is one area that brings her real joy. “There are days when I’m not leaving the house and I’ll do a full face of makeup. It’s something I didn’t really get to do as a teenager because my mom was not available. So that’s something I enjoy. My sister and I are learning together.”
Nature is also an important part of Haley’s life—hiking, kayaking, the beach. “I’m not religious. But the ocean is a power greater than myself, right? I can’t shout at it to stop making waves.”
Before we part, I ask Haley about the imposter syndrome she brought up more than once, and what she’d tell women who can’t shake their own version. Again, a reply best told in her words.
“It was so hard for me to believe that anybody would ever want me—individuals, institutions, groups, anybody. Would they ever want to hear what I have to say or think I’m worthy? And even with all the outside validation that I’ve gotten over the last year, none of it changes how I feel about me. The work starts as an inside job. You have to believe that you are good enough. But if that’s too hard right now, just believe that I believe. I believe you are good enough.”
Perrie Samotin is Glamour's digital director.
This story originally appeared on: Glamour - Author:Condé Nast