After Overcoming Homelessness and Addiction, Katherine Haley Is Headed to the Ivy League


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—but 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 required only 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 who, last year, 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 traditional Ivy League colleges and universities. 


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