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A second chance at LIFE: Donna Pearson

Lipscomb LIFE program allows former TPW resident to fulfill her dream of earning a college degree.

Anna Moseley | 

Donna Pearson LIFE Grad Photo

Pearson decided to pursue a master's degree when she saw the master's degree recipients in their diploma stoles at graduation.

This is the second story in a series celebrating Second Chance Month.

In 2009 the influence of a relationship led Donna Pearson to use cocaine and tore her away from her career in the dental industry, a field she has worked in for more than 26 years.

After realizing she desired to change and to end her addiction, Pearson entered a drug treatment program and was then incarcerated at the Tennessee Prison for Women. What seemed like the end of the road turned out to be the beginning of her journey.

“When I got incarcerated, I knew I needed help,” said Pearson. “I started taking any class I could take to make changes. After graduating from a drug treatment program, I started looking into more ways I could better myself and that’s when I heard about the Lipscomb LIFE program.”

At first, Pearson found herself hesitant to apply for the LIFE program, which offers college degree programs inside the walls of TPW, because she only had an Associate Degree and said her self-esteem and self-worth were low because of her incarceration.

“I was accepted into the LIFE program in 2012 and the doors just began to fly open,” said Pearson. “When those professors and students come out there from the free world and they don’t judge you by the choices you’ve made, they don’t see you as just a uniform, but they look at you as a person and what you have done to change yourself, it helps you feel good about yourself again.”

Pearson was released from prison in 2014, but was out before finishing the requirements for her bachelor’s degree on the inside.

“When I got out of prison, I still had the dream of getting a bachelor's degree in my heart. About six months after I was released, I reached out to (Kate) Watkins and (Richard) Goode to see what it would take to complete my degree at Lipscomb.”

In 2015, Pearson set foot on Lipscomb’s campus as an outside student in what she refers to as the “free world,” in order to fulfil her dream of finishing her degree.

In December 2016, Pearson graduated with her bachelor’s degree and walked across the stage in Allen Arena during winter commencement to proudly receive her diploma.

“Having the support from the Lipscomb family gave me motivation and a dream to complete my bachelor’s degree,” said Pearson. “This program literally changed my life and allowed me to fulfill a dream I didn’t know I had.”

Pearson said her family attended commencement as well as her boss and his wife. She had goosebumps throughout the ceremony, being in the same room with so many people who supported and cheered her on throughout her journey, she said.

“I have never experienced anything so grand. The bagpipes and fanfare at graduation left me in awe,” said Pearson. “I had to keep pinching myself to reassure myself that it was really happening. It was a joy that is comparable to special life moments like a child being born.”

As Pearson watched the master’s candidates walk across the stage to receive their degrees that day, the dream of pursuing a master’s degree was planted in her mind, and she was determined to make that dream come true.

Pearson pursued that dream and will complete Master of Professional Studies degree in strategic and global leadership degree in December of 2019.

“Your dream to get an education doesn’t have to end once you are released from prison,” said Pearson. “The same people that supported you during your incarceration are still there for you and I am proof of that.”

Having been incarcerated, Pearson was not up on the latest technology used in the “outside” world and classroom. When she was released from prison, Pearson said all she knew how to do was type. Starting school in the “free world” with very limited knowledge of the “new” technologies proved to be a challenge for Pearson.

“These professors and advisors have gone above and beyond to do what they can to help me,” said Pearson. “They did not judge me because of what I didn’t know. I have really seen through them what a teacher is supposed to look like because of Lipscomb.”

“It is phenomenal to me how these professors have helped me excel to different levels,” she continued. “Because of the help they have given me, I can reach out that much more and help make the world a better place.”

After leaving prison, Pearson said one reason she was determined to stay in school at Lipscomb was because the professors teach from a Christian perspective.

“The professors have shown me how my education and all that I am learning is mirrored in my walk with God,” said Pearson. “I would not be where I am at today if it weren't for God. I am so grateful the two intertwined together at Lipscomb and in the LIFE program.” — Donna Pearson

Her time in the LIFE program and at Lipscomb not only provided Pearson with an education but also with confidence and the knowledge to restore relationships, said Pearson.

“Sometimes our greatest learning doesn’t come from the information we find in a book,” said Pearson. “Lipscomb gave me a degree, but it also taught me to strive toward betterment for myself.”

More about the LIFE program:

The LIFE program, created by Richard Goode, began in 2007 with 15 inside and 15 outside students.

The program allows inside students (residents at TPW) and outside students (traditional Lipscomb students) to participate together in courses at the associates, bachelor and master’s level.

Various Lipscomb faculty members and the outside students travel from Lipscomb’s campus to TPW every Wednesday night as they meet for class with the inside students.

In 2013, the unique and impactful program put on its first commencement ceremony inside TPW as the first nine women received their associates degrees from Lipscomb University. The second cohort of women received their associates degree in 2015, and in 2017 six women received their bachelor’s degrees in professional studies.

The LIFE program began offering a Master of Arts in Christian Ministry with an emphasis in spiritual care in 2018. Five traditional students travel to TPW every Wednesday to take courses alongside 11 TPW residents as they work toward completion of their four-year master’s degrees together.

There is only one other for-credit higher education program in a U.S. prison that offers master-level courses on-site, according to research by LIFE program director Kate Watkins, and that program does not incorporate interaction with traditional students.

Since the program began, the number of inside students in the LIFE program has grown from 15 to 40 TPW residents taking courses every Wednesday night, working toward associates, bachelor and master’s degrees.

Learn more about the LIFE Program.