Melinda Harbin was 14-years-old when she first visited the UTC campus. She vividly remembers walking around campus, marveling at the size of all the buildings.
“I remember standing in the middle of campus and telling myself, ‘I’m going to be a part of all this one day. I’m going to graduate from here,’” she says.
Nearly 30 years later, Harbin’s dream came true. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology this past spring. Before achieving that goal, she went through a harrowing journey that included not only childhood abuse, but also homelessness.
A Dark Past
Harbin grew up 30 miles from UTC in a small town in northeast Alabama.
“It’s a place where women are to be seen, not heard. I had too much fire in me to do that. I knew from a young age that my gender shouldn’t determine my worth or ability,” she explained.
For most of her childhood, Harbin’s family harbored a dark secret. She tried to tell others about the horrors inside her home, but “no one believed me.”
“My father was well liked around town. He was a police officer. He ran for mayor one year,” Harbin says.
When she was 12, her father was convicted of first-degree rape and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
“All the things I was supposed to trust in the world, I couldn’t.”
Pursuing an Education
In her twenties, Hardin worked in nursing homes as an aide and dreamed about becoming a certified health assistant. She began taking classes to get her GED.
“It was tough. When I moved to Scottsboro, Ala., to start my GED classes, I didn’t have a residence. I had to live out of my car for a little while,” Harbin says.
She credits her GED teacher with pushing her to continue her education.
“One day she handed me a college application. I had never seen one before, and I asked her what it was for. She told me, ‘You can’t follow your dreams without this,’” Harbin remembers.
Building a New Life
After taking classes at community colleges in Alabama and Tennessee for several years, she transferred to UTC.
“Though I was a non-traditional student, I struggled with the typical things that every college student does. There were times where I had to force myself to stay up late and finish a paper,” she recalls.
“To get anything you want in life, you have to be willing to fight for it. The outcome is in your hands. You’ll never read about someone who just laid down and quit in a history book. So the question you have to ask yourself every day is, ‘How bad do I want it?’”
In May, Melinda walked across the stage during the graduation ceremonies in McKenzie Arena.
“I can’t tell you the amount of pride I felt when I heard my name at graduation because I knew I worked so, so hard to be there,” she says.
She credits UTC’s staff for helping her through her 12-year journey to getting a college degree.
“Every time I wanted to quit, Bryon Kluesner at the Disability Resource Center convinced me not to. Every time I was dealing with transferring credits or securing financial aid and thought the door was going to close for the last time, Yancy Freeman in Enrollment Services stuck his foot out. He supported me and fought for me every step of the way. I wouldn’t have graduated without him,” she says.
Harbin is having the same influence on those closest to her. Her brothers are motivated to continue their education after watching her become the first in the family to graduate from a four-year university. Inspired by her daughter’s perseverance, Harbin’s mother is now living on her own for the first time at age 63.
“She told me, ‘I watched you do, so I knew I could do it, too’” Harbin said.
Linda Henegar, Harbin’s mother, readily calls her daughter “an inspiration.”
“I always told her, ‘You can be anything you want to be. Don’t worry, honey, do your best and you’ll get there.’ And she got there. I’m more proud of her than she’ll ever know,” Henegar says.
Diploma in hand, Harbin is considering starting her own life-coaching business and attending graduate school. She’s also looking into volunteering at local women’s shelters.
“I want to be a leader but a good leader. I think the best leaders are servants. I refuse to stop helping people. There’s too much hurt not being addressed; too much hate being met with hate in the world,” she says.
“I can’t help but care about people. People say I have too much compassion. I consider it a gift, but it’s only a good gift if I give it away,” she continued.
For now, she’s enjoying taking care of her grandson, Chase, for whom she has full custody.
“I’ve been in several situations in my life where I should have ended up dead. I used to pray to God to let me die, but I’m still here. I know I have a purpose. When Chase runs up to me, gives me a big hug and says, ‘I love you, Nana,’ it makes it all worth it.”