NewsLocal News


From prison to college – a Cal Poly graduate’s comeback

Posted at 5:59 PM, Jun 13, 2019
and last updated 2021-03-12 22:49:04-05

Graduating from Cal Poly has been a long road for Cambria native Mia Alexander.

“I was kind of just, walking around the world like a zombie, kind of with no light, no dreams, no aspirations,” Alexander said.

When she was 16 years old, she started using drugs. That led her into a downward spiral.

She said she started doing poorly in school, started getting involved with a “bad crowd” and dating someone she shouldn’t have. At 18, she went to jail.

From then on, Alexander said she fell into a negative cycle, going in and out of jail or prison for most of her 20s.

She said every time she went to prison, it was because of something drug-related, such as committing crimes to get money so she could continue to do drugs.

Her addiction led to the loss of very important people in her life, she said. She lost three of her four children to child welfare services, and her grandmother, who raised her, cut her off.

During all of this, she said finding that light at the end of the tunnel seemed impossible.

Mia Alexander is graduating from Cal Poly with a degree in sociology. (Photo courtesy Cal Poly/Jay Thompson)

“I didn’t lose hope just a little bit, I lost all hope,” she said.

But then, something changed.

“I think what came on for me is that I kind of stopped and looked around and was like, my family was gone, my kids were gone and I was just kind of like going in this big circle to nowhere,” she said.  “I kind of just realized that I am old and just going in and out, and as I got older and realized when you go into prison, there is people that are never going out and you just never know when that may be you, and I just decided to do something different.”

That’s when she asked for help.

While in jail, she started preparing for the GED.

“I did well in school until I started using, and so I didn’t have to study or anything, and I passed it the first time,” she said.

When she got out of jail in 2011, she started living in a sober home.

From there, she enrolled in Cuesta College, not knowing what to major in, but then she found something that gave her purpose: sociology.

“I didn’t want to be like stationary in one thing, and so I started there, and it’s kind of ventured out into drug and alcohol counseling,” Alexander said.  

After finishing her classes at Cuesta College, Cal Poly was an easy choice for her because her family is in San Luis Obispo County.

In 2017, she was accepted.

“I cried,” Alexander said. “I called my sponsor, I called my grandma, my partner, because I worried about it.”

Finishing school did not come without its obstacles. Alexander said juggling work, school and motherhood was difficult but it was all worth it.

She said all the obstacles she has faced and Cal Poly’s motto, “Learn By Doing,” has helped her get a head start in her career.

While in college, Alexander had an internship at a sober living home and worked at Restorative Partners, a non-profit organization that helps people impacted by crime.

Mia Alexander worked at Restorative Partners during her time at Cal Poly. Photo Courtesy: Mia Alexander

“One of your biggest anxieties is that you read all of this stuff, you write all of these papers and you’re like ‘am I going to remember this?’ so I had a professor tell me, ‘It’s when you get out there and hands-on when you start applying everything that you learn and things start sticking into your long form memory,’ so I really like that it’s learning by doing.”

Throughout her time at Cal Poly, Alexander said she gained confidence.

On Sunday, she will graduate alongside the College of Liberal Arts students with honors, something that at one point, seemed impossible.

“I just remind myself to stay humble, but it was something that I never dreamed to be possible,” she said. 

From there, she said she will take off to Europe for a vacation with family.

Once she returns from her trip, she said she plans to pursue drug and alcohol counseling, adding that she thinks her life experiences and education will help her excel in that field.

“One of the things that was really important when I was going through treatment is that you find people that you can relate to and are relatable and can kind of understand what your struggles are,” she said. “ I was a mess, I was a wreck, and so I think that living by example and showing people that I did it, I’m not just this outlier, we all have the capability of doing it.”

She said she eventually wants to open a residential program in San Luis Obispo County.

“I was caught in that vicious cycle and now I want to become part of a solution instead of just kind of talking about it and putting people down because I understand it and I get it,” she said.