From Drug Addiction To College Graduation: A Turnaround Story

Jun 5, 2015

A 27-year-old man recovering from drug addiction will graduate from the Community College of Vermont on Saturday. Wayne Miller originally entered college for all the wrong reasons, but made a dramatic turnaround.

By the time he was an 11-year-old in Hartford Middle School, Miller was grieving the loss of his family. His father, who had addiction problems, had fled. His younger sisters were placed in foster care, but he stayed behind and cared for his depressed mother.

“Of course she went into a deeper depression. I tried to make sure she would take her medication, wake up to eat, that kind of stuff, and so I pretty much stopped performing in school altogether,” Miller recalls.

He repeated sixth grade, fending off racist taunts about his mixed race parentage. By the time he was 15 he was abusing alcohol and pot. Soon he started popping prescription pills he found in his mother’s medicine cabinet and at friends’ houses. He had an overdose in school and dropped out. To support his habit he became a drug dealer in the in the Upper Valley. Then he hatched another money-making scheme: enroll in the Community College of Vermont.

But not to get an education.

“The original reason I went there actually was that I knew a couple of people who went to school there and they were telling me about financial aid. And so I wanted to get that money and buy drugs and make a profit. So I had no intentions of staying there beyond the first semester or paying the money back, or anything like that,” Miller admits.

To support his habit he became a drug dealer in the in the Upper Valley. Then he hatched another money-making scheme: enroll in the Community College of Vermont. But not to get an education.

His advisor suggested he take a substance abuse prevention course. He knew a lot about drugs, so he figured he’d ace it. He wrote a paper about attending his first 12-step meeting at Turning Point, a recovery center in Wilder, and got an A.

Problem was, the whole paper was a lie.

“And my teacher had written these nice comments of, ‘I’m glad you had that experience,’ because I ended the paper by saying that I accepted I was an addict and I spoke up in the meeting. And that didn’t happen. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t go. So after, I felt guilty,” Miller says.

Sara Degennaro, an instructor at the Community College of Vermont in Wilder, helped her student, Wayne Miller, find a path to drug addiction recovery.
Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR

The teacher, Sara Degennaro, could have flunked him for plagiarism. But she's a substance abuse therapist, so she believes in second chances.

“So I’m like, Wayne, can you do it?” she asked him.

“Can you actually fulfill the obligation of the class and what can you learn from it? And so, I don’t know, I think that he’s told me that was a turnaround point for him.”

Miller did go to a meeting, wrote a truthful paper about it, and started to fight his addictions.

“To be honest, I have other students with equally amazing stories,” Degennaro said. “What sets Wayne apart is that he is a leader. He has charisma. And he uses that to help other people.”

Miller now works at Turning Point, the same center in Wilder where his own recovery began.

Miller now works at the same Turning Point Center in Wilder where his own recovery began. "Some days I still feel like crap and I just try to do the next right thing to better myself," he says.

As a substance abuse peer counselor, Miller delivers a realistic message: that kicking drugs cannot guarantee happiness all the time.

“Some days I still feel like crap and I just try to do the next right thing to better myself,” he says.

On Saturday, that next right thing will be to receive his associates degree from Community College of Vermont. His teachers, girlfriend, mother, grandparents, aunt, and father – now also in recovery – will cheer him on as he receives the student award for community service.

Wayne Miller originally shared his story with VPR's Traces Project. Read more here.