Carl Harris had nearly lost hope.
An Air Force veteran, he struggled to return to civilian life, and survived violence, racism, jail, and homelessness. Desperate for a new beginning, he left a futile situation in Texas in order to head for Alaska. After running out of money, he wound up in Seattle without a place to live.
“I stepped off the Greyhound bus with a backpack and $4 in my pocket,” Harris said. He stayed at a shelter just across the street and would sometimes sleep in doorways near a local Labor Ready so he could be first in line for work the next morning. Eventually, he found an apartment and held a steady job in a Renton warehouse, but still felt hopeless without purpose in his life.
As his bus passed by Renton Technical College every morning and evening, he watched a diverse group of students going to and from campus and an idea began to form.
“I saw hope on the faces of those students,” Harris said. “I knew I had to attend college.”
At age 33, he became a student in the RTC Phlebotomy Program, and he regained hope.
“At first, I just wanted to get through it,” Harris said. “There was no way I was going to this school for anything longer than a quarter. I wanted to knock out the phlebotomy class and get to work. But from day one, I knew I was home at RTC because everyone was encouraging and I was given additional responsibility immediately.”
The supportive environment gave him the confidence to jump right into the longer Surgical Technologist Program. He then decided to stay at RTC and earn his associate degree in order to transfer to UW Tacoma.
Harris, whose biracial background had often made him feel out of place, formed friendships with ease, excelled in his academics, and quickly became a leader. He serves as a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, Student Leadership Executive Committee, Associated Student Government, and as a peer program tutor. He is also the student representative of the RTC Board of Trustees, and served as the president of the Surgical Technologist Club. He was integral in starting the new Men of Merit Program, which provides mentoring and support for minority men, who research shows drop out of college at a disproportionate rate.
“We don’t want students of color to come here and give up,” he said. “No one should feel alone.”
Harris knows what that feels like. He recalled moving to a new town with little racial diversity his senior year of high school. He was the first student of color to play football or wrestle for the school, and he was harassed by swastikas on desks and racial slurs hurled at him.
“Carl is an example of all that is good and right about what we do at Renton Technical College,” said Director of Student Programs and Engagement Jessica Supinski. “He is pragmatic, realistic, empathetic, and authentic, and his ability to make meaningful connections with so many different people is exceptional. He can intuitively understand the struggles, pain, and motivations of others and connect with them.”
For all this, The Board of Trustees chose him to be RTC’s nominee for the Transforming Lives Award sponsored by the Washington State Association of College Trustees, and he was named to the 2018 All-USA Academic Team – one of only 20 students in the country to be recognized for outstanding academic achievement
He says his own experiences help him support other students.
“I’ve been in darker places than most people I know,” Harris said. “I have learned that I have the qualities and skills to not only survive but to thrive. I am grateful for the opportunities that I’ve been afforded at RTC because they have given me great confidence. I see that I can make a significant impact in people’s lives, and that I have the capacity to empathize with the suffering of others.”
After his 2018 graduation from RTC, Harris plans to complete the Bachelor of Social Welfare Program at UW Tacoma. After that, he will continue on to either graduate school in social work or law. He encourages fellow students to seek out the resources that have been set up specifically to help them succeed.
“Because of RTC, I have hope, I have skills, I have purpose, and I have direction,” he said. “If you want to change your life, you can do it here. At RTC, you can do anything.”