Katie Streber’s daughter, Joy, turned 4 on Aug. 14, 2016. Thirteen days later, Streber was arrested in Tennessee for drug possession with intent to sell, a felony.
It was not the first time she’d been arrested that year. She already was facing identity theft charges for trying to use a stolen credit card in a North Georgia store in March 2016.
In all, Streber spent seven and a half months in jail on the two charges in late 2016 and early 2017. During that time, the father of her daughter overdosed and died.
“So, while I was incarcerated after that happened, I had a 4-year-old little girl out here in the world with no parents,” Streber said.
Embarrassed by her longtime behavior—drugs became a major part of her life after she graduated from Ooltewah High School in 2000—and determined to complete a life-altering makeover, in August 2021 she enrolled at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga at the age of 38.
In May 2023, she graduated summa cum laude from UTC with a bachelor’s degree in integrated studies, focusing on social work and criminal justice. She has been accepted into the UTC graduate school and plans to pursue a master’s degree in public administration.
“My time at UTC has been amazing, and I have met so many incredible people,” Streber said. “I did have moments where I was, ‘I’m by far the oldest student,’ and it does make you look back and consider, ‘If I had done this when I was supposed to, at the appropriate age, where would I be now?’ That kind of thing.
“I am incredibly grateful for the second chances afforded to me, and I am determined to utilize each one in giving back and helping others who might have histories similar to mine.”
Dr. Talia Welsh, director of integrated studies and UC Foundation professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion, was the instructor for Streber’s Integrated Studies: Senior Portfolio course. Welsh described her as “an excellent student.”
“I’d describe her as personable, smart, hardworking,” Welsh said. “She obviously was able to juggle a lot—working and being a parent and going to school.
“She always handed in her stuff on time and always was really thoughtful about it. Even if you gave her the most minimal feedback, she’d want to respond to it and improve her work.”
Streber began her journey to UTC—and sobriety—after pleading guilty to a drug possession charge and being sentenced to Hamilton County Recovery Court. The program gave her probation in return for wearing an ankle bracelet for a period of time, remaining sober, holding down a job, attending Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, submitting to random drug tests and reporting to a probation officer.
Authorities in Georgia agreed to let her complete probation ordered by that state in Tennessee, so long as she met all Recovery Court requirements.
Recovery Court included the help of group therapy and one-on-one counselors, such as those from the local, Chattanooga-based Council for Alcohol and Drugs Services (CADAS).
“It was a lifeline. The people there are wonderful. They supported me. They acted like I was somebody until I believed that myself,” she said.
Streber tried college before coming to UTC. Several times, in fact. Months after graduating from Ooltewah High School in 2000, she spent a semester at the University of Memphis.
“It did not go well,” she said. “I guess I met the wrong people and started doing the wrong kind of things.
She came home from Memphis and worked as a server, hostess, bartender, you-name-it in several local restaurants. She enrolled for a semester at Chattanooga State Community College. Quit. She enrolled for a semester at UTC. Quit.
“I thought I knew it all. I just thought that I was going to go to work and be successful that way,” she said.
Drugs were part of her life the entire time—“I did everything”—and she tried rehab several times without success, she said. She was arrested on a few misdemeanors before her felony charges, which led to her time in jail—her divorced father and mother took care of Joy during that time—then her probation through Recovery Court.
While on probation, she enrolled again at Chattanooga State in 2019 and earned an associate of science degree in social work. With that in hand, she enrolled at UTC.
She worked in restaurants for a time during her probation but eventually was hired by CADAS as lead behavioral health technician. She has progressed to financial utilization review counselor at the organization, helping those in the program deal with the payment of fines and other bills, with insurance companies and advice on money matters. She dealt with all of those herself, she said.
“Hopefully, by sharing my story, I will have a small impact on changing the stigma associated with mental health and substance-use disorders and show others in recovery—or even those thinking about getting clean and sober—that it is possible to move forward in life.”
While Streber originally aimed for a career as a personal counselor, Welsh suggested public administration. To some, “administration” means paper-pushing and bureaucracy but, as an academic program, the focus is on policymaking and programs for the public welfare.
“Talia introduced me to the idea that maybe you can help people on a broader scale through public administration,” Streber said. “How you can just really be that change; how you’re in a position to promote positive change.”
The job fits Streber’s personality, Welsh said.
“Katie’s definitely somebody who’s interested in making the world a better place. She’s had people in her life who have helped make her life be in a better place,” Welsh said.
There’s no denying that going to school while working full-time and being a single mom had its strains, Streber said.
“I like to think that I am a good example of someone working to overcome substance-use issues and criminal justice involvement to achieve academic and professional success while positively impacting the lives of others.”
This past school year as a fifth-grader at East Brainerd Elementary, Streber’s daughter won the Daughters of the American Revolution Citizenship Award, and she hopes some of Joy’s success was based on watching her mother’s determination.
“She had the best characteristics: honesty, loyalty, truthfulness, all the things that I learned as part of being in recovery and Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and drug court,” Streber said.
“I think that—and this is so cliché—but I think knowledge is power, and I think the more knowledge that I can learn, I’ll be able to deal with life and help Joy deal with life.”
Click here for details about the Integrated Studies program at UTC.