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A Cycle of Hope: Social work alum reflects on journey from prison to Ph.D.

There are moments in life when something shifts and everything changes. Reggie Smith (B.A.,Social Work, ’16) recognized that moment when he and his two Austin City Hall Fellow teammates encountered a couple of young girls in an underserved East Austin neighborhood.

“We were going door-to-door handing out flyers about an internet accessibility program and these two girls looked at my team members—both women of color—and asked, ‘You go to UT?’” Smith says. “I recognized that was a unique and powerful moment. They saw the possibility of going to a top school, something they might not have imagined before.”

There’s no telling whether the girls will go on to UT Austin, or perhaps another university, but Smith saw the spark in their eyes and knew a seed had been planted. Looking back at his former life trajectory—an ongoing cycle of drug abuse and incarceration—Smith feels indebted to the people who ignited that same sense of hope, inspiring him to believe that anything is possible.

His journey to the Forty Acres began with a continuing education pamphlet. While serving his fifth prison sentence, he emailed a professor at San Antonio Community College and asked about the possibility of becoming a licensed substance abuse counselor. Excited about the prospect of turning his life around, he enlisted the support of a social worker from the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services after his release.

“I told her what I wanted to do and she said, ‘OK, we’re doing this together,’” Smith recalls. “She worked with me every step of the way until graduation, modeling to me what a social worker is like.”

With a plan in place, he worked hard and found his way into a halfway house, where the owner took note of his progress and dubbed him a “successful person in transition.” Impressed by Smith’s transformation, the owner recommended that he raise the bar even higher and pursue a social work degree from UT Austin.

“He saw a strength in me that I didn’t even know I had,” Smith says. “I’m so glad I took his advice to broaden my horizons. Every chance I get, I tell people the School of Social Work was like home to me. From the dean on down, they nurtured me and embraced me. They saw my transition and wanted me to transform, not reform.”

Smith openly shares his life story because he wants to show people that anything is possible. This is his way of repaying the many people in his corner who pushed him to work hard and keep raising the bar. In essence he wants to replace the ever-turning wheel of crime and incarceration with a cycle of hope.

“When I talk about my past, I’m serving my community—my brothers and sisters who have mental health challenges and substance abuse issues,” Smith says. “There’s not a lot of people at UT like me, an older Black man with a criminal record. I wish there were more.”

Now a Peer Policy Fellow for Communities for Recovery, a position funded by a Hogg Foundation for Mental Health grant, Smith aims to help more people succeed as they leave prison and re-enter society. These individuals will need a lot of assistance from support systems along the way—from housing to recovery programs to education. During his two-year fellowship, Smith has been working with city leaders and state legislatures to increase access and funding to these critical resources.Though the long workweeks can be daunting, Smith says the rewards will pay off when he enters graduate school this spring.

“I have two years of valuable work experience under my belt,” Smith says. “This fellowship has allowed me to meet all the key players in the city’s mental health community. I’ve learned the intricacies of the legislative process and how to facilitate meetings. I like to say that I’m getting the LBJ School education on the cheap.”

After graduate school, the future is yet to be determined, but the core of his life’s work is set in stone.

“It’s important for me to serve as a model of success—especially to those who have been in and out of the prison system,” Smith adds. “I want to show them that if I can change, anybody can. People saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself. Now it’s incumbent on me to get my Ph.D. at a top university so folks can see people like me can be successful.”

Making an impact—large or small—is what it’s all about, Smith says. Looking back at his time on the Forty Acres, some of his fondest memories stem from his experiences as an Austin City Hall Fellow. Housed within the Longhorn Center for Community Engagement, the program empowers students to become agents of change through service-learning. Advised by community and city leaders, as well as former fellows, they hone their skills in public service while making a positive impact in underserved areas of Austin.

“I try to let people know that education is more than just tests, it’s about the total experience,” Smith says. “These programs at the DDCE take that experience to a whole new level. It’s not just coursework, but engaging and interacting with the community.”

Read more about this outstanding alumnus in a School of Social Work web feature!