by Laurie D. Willis ’86
Palestine Small knows what it’s like to get help.
A Durham, N.C., rehabilitation center helped her get clean and off drugs, and the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program (C-STEP) helped lead her to UNC.
But Small’s road to Chapel Hill was anything but conventional. When she was only 5, her mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The diagnosis, coupled with their father’s absence, forced Small and her older sister into foster care. By age 9 Small was drinking. Eventually she dropped out of high school and was soon addicted to drugs.
Small spent 31 years in active addiction, endured sexual and physical abuse and had some run- ins with the law. Then she arrived at a definitive fork in her road—instead of handing down a traditional punishment for Small’s last legal offenses, an insightful judge gave her a choice: get help and get her life back on track or go to jail. Small chose life, and sought help for her addiction through Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers (TROSA), a comprehensive, long-term residential substance recovery program in Durham.
After getting clean and deciding she wanted to give college a try to better her life, Small enrolled at Durham Technical Community College, where she had hoped to get into the Licensed Practical Nursing (L.P.N.) program. But its waiting list was long, so she sought the guidance of an advisor who mentioned the possibility of transferring to a four-year institution.
“She said I’d finished all of the prerequisites and I could decide whether I wanted to obtain a B.S.N. or an L.P.N., and of course there would be a difference in pay,” Small said. “After I decided I wasn’t going to do the L.P.N. program, Mary Marsha Cupitt was assigned as my advisor and told me I’d be a good candidate for C-STEP.
“When I applied for C-STEP, of course my criminal record came up,” she said. But she got an interview for a slot in the program. She left the interview feeling that the people she’d met were touched by her story but perhaps too troubled by some of her disclosures to recommend her. Later, after receiving a letter requesting a meeting with the dean of admissions, she feared the worst. But she went to the interview armed with her faith and a resolve to deal with the outcome.
“I was nervous because I felt like I was going to be raked over the coals and judged for my past, but I wanted to be honest,” Small said. “It would do me no good to lie, so I told them who I was, I told them about the past and then I introduced them to who I am now. By the end of the interview we were hugging and crying, and they said they really wanted me to come to Carolina.”
Even so, Small said she almost fainted when her acceptance letter arrived. She enrolled at UNC in summer 2012, at the age of 46. She was nervous about joining the ranks of students half her age, but fortunately, people quickly stepped in to help make her transition as smooth as possible.
“I had a C-STEP mentor who was over 30 years old, and I also had Mrs. Rebecca Egbert and a transfer mentor who were invaluable to me,” she said. “My transfer mentor was an older, non-traditional age student who could relate to my fears. She was awesome.”
Being reassured by mentors is one thing, but Small still had to interact with her classmates, most of whom were 20 to 30 years younger. “I didn’t expect to be so well respected by my classmates and professors,” Small said. “It shocked me that people could be so nice to me and not judgmental.”
To ensure she got a true taste of the Carolina experience, Small lived on campus in Odum Village during her first year in Chapel Hill. She loved it. She also includes hanging out on the 8th floor of Davis Library, spending time in the writing center and taking a speed reading class among her favorite memories of UNC.
And she got involved. Having decided that she wanted to dedicate her life to helping others, Small became a Buckley Public Service Scholar, a program of the Carolina Center for Public Service (CCPS).
“I joined Buckley because I wanted to give back,” Small said. “I picked the organizations I did because they dealt with addiction, poverty and homelessness and I can relate to all three of those social issues. I want to stay involved with those types of organizations to ensure I never forget from whence I came, and so I passionately worked with them because for me it’s personal.”
As a Buckley Public Service Scholar, Small volunteered to teach life skills to women in recovery and also worked to introduce basic computer skills to people to enable them to be able to create resumes and apply for jobs. To broaden her public service experience and to amass more volunteer hours, Small also worked with Farmer Foodshare, which provides food for a rape crisis center, Interfaith Council, which works with homeless people and also assists people with their rent, utilities and money for prescription medications, and Table, which provides food for children who receive free or reduced lunches to ensure they get proper nutrition when they’re not in school.
“Buckley Scholars made a huge difference in my life because they allowed me to perform community service while simultaneously obtaining skills training in areas in which I’d never worked and may have never considered,” Small said. “Also, working in the Buckley Scholars program was a way to connect to other students and to the Chapel Hill community.”
Small’s public service work didn’t go unnoticed. During spring 2012 before she enrolled at Carolina, she was named Volunteer of the Year at the North Carolina Comprehensive Community College Student Government Association conference. Later, folks at UNC couldn’t say enough about what she did.
“Palestine’s motivation to enhance her Carolina experience through public service is an outstanding example for others,” said Lynn W. Blanchard, director, Carolina Center for Public Service. “She proves that age, experience or life demands do not have to limit you. Her dedication to give back and her perspective were outstanding. Here at the Carolina Center for Public Service, we are pleased to offer opportunities like the Buckley Public Service Scholars program to support the commitment of Carolina students like Palestine.”
Small graduated from Carolina Dec. 15, 2013, with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and is applying to divinity schools. She plans to earn a divinity degree and ultimately a law degree so she can help others like herself.
“I want to use faith, love, education and vocational training to help repair people who are broken,” Small said. “There are a lot of young people who need help, and I want to work with juveniles who are caught up in my former lifestyle. I feel compelled to spend my life giving back because so much was given to me so freely.”
Small’s story has stirred a lot of interest, and she doesn’t mind sharing it. “I’ve had a lot of support and encouragement on this journey, and I want to pay that forward,” she said. “I am living proof that it’s never too late to turn your life around and I will always be grateful to all those who gave me the opportunity.
I am proud to be a Carolina graduate.”