Life didn’t give Clinton Howard many breaks: He was born into drug addiction, dropped out of school by eighth grade, and went to prison twice on felony charges.
But two years ago, he enrolled in classes at Lower Columbia College, beginning a complete reinvention of himself. He’s now the school’s student government president. He’ll graduate this spring with the possibility of attending an elite four-year college, and he recently won statewide awards and honors for academic success and transforming his life.
Howard says his transformation is due to the continual support of his aunt, friends and LCC faculty as well as old-fashioned determination and hard work.
“The hardest part is just making up your mind that you want something different and you’re worth it,” he said. “But once you realize that, you just grasp onto your dreams with all your heart, you keep your head down, and you do everything in your power to make those dreams a reality.”
Howard, 32, was born in Vancouver to parents addicted to drugs. The summer before seventh grade, he moved to Longview and briefly attended Monticello Middle School before being expelled for truancy. He was quickly expelled again the next school year for having a pocketknife in his locker. He never attended ninth grade, and he only tried 10th grade at Kelso High for a short time.
“School was never made to be important to me,” Howard said in an interview Friday. “My parents never finished high school. My older sibling didn’t finish high school. The lifestyle that we lived, school just wasn’t of much importance to my family growing up.”
During this time, Howard said he was committing petty crimes such as car prowls, which he used to support his drug habit (he said he already was using meth by age 14 or 15).
By 2010, Howard, then 24, was arrested and convicted of vehicular assault under the influence after hitting someone with his car and fleeing the scene. He spent three years in prison.
“These are things that I can never take back that I wish that I could, but they’re things that I’ve ultimately learned from and that really shaped me into who I am today,” Howard said of the incident.
After being released, Howard was incarcerated again on a 17-month sentence, this time for vehicle theft, in 2014.
However, during the court hearings, the man whose car Howard stole actively defended Howard, trying to get him in drug court instead of prison and writing letters to the attorneys. This touched Howard.
“Something clicked: He could have enough compassion in his heart to try to help someone who stole from him and his family,” he said. “I think that really is what began that journey, and I actually really learned this time.”
When Howard completed his second stint in prison, he stayed with his aunt Debra, who still houses and supports her nephew to this day.
“She loved me until I loved myself,” he said.
After working on his aunt’s 50-acre Rose Valley property, Howard enrolled at LCC after seeing how much his girlfriend, Brittany Lovely, enjoyed college.
“She’d tell me about the things she learned at school that day, and she was always so excited and vibrant and enthusiastic about where her future was heading, and that’s what I wanted,” Howard said. “I wanted to be like that, because she (felt) like a million bucks every day.”
Lovely helped Howard sign up for classes and financial aid in January 2016, but he was initially nervous about re-starting school.
“When I first came (to LCC), I had all these self-doubts,” he said. “My inner critic was definitely overpowering my inner guide. I thought I wasn’t smart enough. I wouldn’t fit in. … People wouldn’t understand my background and they’re not going to be accepting of me.”
However, after working with an advisor at LCC’s student support program — which works with students who are first-generation in college, low-income or have self-identified disabilities — Howard said he’s landed on his feet.
“The faculty and the administration and the student support services here and of course, my peers ... have all contributed to every success that I’ve had here,” he said. “They’ve given me full support in everything that I decide to do.”
During his two years at LCC, Howard has earned straight A’s in every class until last quarter (“Spanish got me,” he joked), is the president of Associated Students of LCC and the vice president of the college’s honor society. He’s also applying to transfer to top-notch universities including Harvard, Columbia, Notre Dame and the University of Washington. Howard says he’s been clean for three years.
“I’m never going to sell myself short again,” he said. “I’m never going to settle for less, and I’m always going to fight for what I really want in my heart.”
Howard also was one of 35 recipients of the Transforming Lives Award from the Washington State Association of College Trustees. Each of the state’s community or technical colleges honors one student who changes his or her life as a result of attending school.
LCC President Chris Bailey, a member of the Board of Trustees who helped choose Howard for the Transforming Lives award, said Howard “adds so much to our LCC community.”
“(Howard) puts in a lot of effort, and he’s concerned about the overall community, not just his overall progress, and I really respect that.” Bailey said. “He’s also an example of how community colleges can change lives.”
Howard is also a member of the All-Washington Academic Team, which earns him a meeting with Gov. Jay Inslee in Olympia in March. Two students from each of the state’s community and technical colleges are honored every year as a part of this group.
“I never even imagined that I would be allowed to be in the same building as people like that,” Howard said about meeting Inslee.
LCC Interim Director of Student Programs Paz Clearwater, who nominated Howard for the Transforming Lives award, said Howard is “a testament to what we want our community colleges to be.”
“I’ve met a lot of students working here, and I don’t think I’ve met as many students that spend as much time on self-improvement as Clinton,” he said.
Howard, who is scheduled to receive his Associate’s Degree in the spring, plans to study organizational psychology at whatever university he attends. However, before he retires, he said he wants to work at a community college as an administrator to provide students with the same support he received.
“I want to teach people that there are choices and options, and you don’t have to settle,” he said. “With hard work, dedication and motivation, you can make positive changes happen for yourself and for your community.”