Best & Brightest: Facing Life in Prison, Dropout Turned to Education

When Denise Maupin talks about her troubled past, she uses adjectives like “suicidal” and “destructive” to describe life as a drug addict and convict. When she talks about life now, she can use the word “perseverance” to describe her turnaround into a college graduate who founded a support group for former gang members.

The road that finally led the 35-year-old Maupin to the California State University-Fullerton commencement ceremony earlier this month, where she received her bachelor’s degree, has been winding and unyielding.

Maupin, who is of Cuban and Italian descent, resided in foster and group homes and did not meet her biological mother until she moved to California at age 12. Soon after, she dropped out of school, and by 14 she was on her own and addicted to cocaine and methamphetamines.

Maupin managed to earn her GED when she was 18, but her life didn’t turn around until she hit rock bottom at 27. It was then, imprisoned for drug possession on her second strike — one more strike meant life in prison — that she realized the life she’d deemed “normal” had to change.

“Something had to happen, so I went to a treatment facility when I got out of prison, and my life changed from that point,” she says. By the time she was 30, she had completed a 12-step program. “I started to find more direction and purpose.” 

A friend who was an attorney suggested that she go to school and walked her through the process of applying to a junior college.

“I just showed up, and I kept going,” she says of the college experience. “It was very scary for me. I had never even heard of a research paper before. I had never heard of half of the terms they use in a college.”  

In the spring of 2005, Maupin transferred from Long Beach City College to CSU- Fullerton, where she encountered a couple of professors who “had high expectations for me, and they made me live up to them,” Maupin says.

Dr. Eileen Walsh, an assistant professor of sociology at CSU-Fullerton who has taught Maupin in three classes, was one of those professors. Says Walsh, “Denise is a unique and gifted young woman. Her perseverance and drive are remarkable and her story can be an inspiration to many.”   

Maupin is now preparing to take the next step in her education. She has been accepted into CSU-Fullerton’s graduate program and will begin classes in sociology or criminology in the fall. Once she completes her master’s, she plans to attend law school. 

“My child is one of my motivators,” Maupin says of her four-year-old son. “I’ve learned that if I don’t go to college, the likelihood of my child going is slim-to-none. It’s been imperative that I keep going because I want my son to have a different life. I need to break the cycle. For generations in my family, parents have left their kids, and I need to make a difference in my family before I can do it in the community.” 

Instilling in him the value of an education early, Maupin bought her preschooler a little computer so “when I’m doing homework, I try to get him to do homework. It’s all about perseverance, and not letting anyone tell you no. I’m the first person ever in my family that has been to college.” 

Wilbur Tate, Maupin’s academic advisor, says, “I never met a person with so much desire, enthusiasm and love for life. Through Denise’s success and all of her past and recent accomplishments, she has made me a better faculty member and human being. She is an inspiration to us all.”

Maupin says her career goal is to give back to the community. She speaks to a lot of people about how to overcome drugs and alcohol and recently started Criminal and Gang Members Anonymous to help gang members, prostitutes and criminals understand “that there is another way out.”

“I believe I went through everything that I went through to become the person that I am today,” Maupin says. “I’m not ashamed of where I come from. I’ve experienced the most demoralizing things that people go through in life, and I see so many lives ruined because of it. I believe that’s a choice. You can either be a victim or you become a survivor, and I can’t emphasize enough that no matter what you go through, you can pick yourself up and keep moving. It’s profound to me that God has brought me this far.

“I may be only one person, but people are going to know me when I’m done.”

— Best and Brightest is an occasional series highlighting extraordinary minority college students. If you know a student who has overcome tremendous odds, is excelling in school and giving back to their community, e-mail Associate Editor Toni Coleman at tcoleman@diverseeducation.com.

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