Paula Antwine found herself with only two options in life — living under a bridge in Dallas’ South Oak Cliff neighborhood or going back to prison.
Antwine became homeless at the age of 15 and addicted to illegal drugs at 18. While living on the streets of South Oak Cliff, she became pregnant.
“I was a product of my environment,” Antwine said. “It seemed like I couldn’t get out. I ended up going to prison four times. I would keep going back. It was all I knew. I think I just gave up. I didn’t have anything to go back to when I got out.”
But a phone call five years ago from a caring cousin, along with a support system she found at Victoria College, have helped the 52-year-old Antwine transform her life. Antwine is pursuing her associate degree at Victoria College with the dream of becoming a counselor to help women like her overcome drug addiction and other challenges.
“I’m very passionate about helping people who are homeless and suffering from mental illness,” said Antwine, who was recently named a winner of the Victoria College Foundation’s $1,000 “What’s Your Story?” scholarship contest after submitting an essay telling her story. “I want to help those people who are caught in drugs and coming out of prison.”
Antwine’s cycle of incarceration would have likely continued had she not received a phone call out of the blue from her cousin, Deborah Smith Pegues, who is a motivational speaker and bestselling author of 18 transformational books, including “30 Days to Taming Your Tongue.”
“She asked me what she could do to keep me from going back to prison,” Antwine said. “I told her I wanted to go back to school, and she asked me what was stopping me.”
Antwine had accumulated debt from taking vocational classes. Pegues offered to pay off the debt so Antwine could afford to enroll at El Centro College in Dallas.
“That was the first time I was actually motivated to do anything. I didn’t have any excuses,” said Antwine, who obtained her GED while in prison.
Antwine attended El Centro College, but still felt the tug of the streets. She decided to move in with her middle child, Sarah Antwine, in Victoria. She enrolled at Victoria College and immediately found the support she needed after applying to VC’s KEY Center, a TRIO Student Support Services program, funded fully by the United States Department of Education.
“I just wanted somebody to look at me and tell me I was going to be OK,” Antwine said. “Everyone at the KEY Center would tell me I could do it. I would come in somedays and tell them, ‘I can’t do this.’ But they would stand there with me and encourage me. They would push and sometimes carry me.”
Antwine eventually got her own apartment and invited her brother, Derrick Giddings, to move from Dallas and live with her in Victoria. The sister and brother both enrolled at Victoria College. Giddings graduated in May with his Process Technology Certificate.
“I told him I understood what he was going through because I had been there,” Antwine said. “I told him he didn’t owe me anything. He didn’t have to stress about money. I just told him to get in school and he did. Then he really took off.”
Antwine is due to obtain her associate degree next May and plans to pursue her bachelor’s degree at the University of Houston-Victoria.
“If you would have told me five years ago I would be thinking of a bachelor’s degree, I would have said you were crazy,” Antwine said. “I’m just so thankful for Victoria College for giving me a chance. It shows the world that your past doesn’t define who you are.”