After experiencing homelessness on the streets and shelters of Raleigh for 20 years, Michael Watkins says it’s surreal to be in a PhD program.
During those two decades without a home, Watkins admits he sometimes worried that he wouldn’t wake up every morning – and sometimes, he says, his peers didn’t. But even struggling with basic needs like finding food, finding a place to sleep and battling drug addiction, Watkins says a love of serving others and a desire to impact the world ultimately got him. pushed to make a big change.
As a teenager, he confided in his mother the dream of his life to obtain a doctorate.
“My mother always urged me to go,” he said.
But when she died, he saw that his life was not going in the direction he had originally dreamed of.
“I looked at myself in the mirror and realized that I didn’t recognize myself. I wanted to be someone else,” he said.
As soon as Watkins decided to turn his life around, he went full speed ahead – and as his resources grew, he began to use them to help others. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was on his way to earning four college degrees, including his current PhD program. And in time, even President Obama would thank him for his life of service to those in need.
Volunteering in disaster areas to help newly homeless families
While still working his way out of homelessness, Watkins trained to become an emergency response volunteer with the Red Cross, traveling to disaster areas where families faced a reality he never knew. knew all too well: homelessness.
When he traveled to Alabama and Louisiana to help after Hurricane Katrina, the unfathomable amounts of pain and loss he saw put his own struggles into perspective.
“The things I saw – and smelled – were amazing. When we got to the bridge, there were mausoleum parts. I saw mold that literally looked like a forest. You could smell it at miles,” he said.
He saw bodies covered in tarpaulins in the streets. He distributed food and water to those in need. But her main job was to interview those who survived, to allow them catharsis by telling their stories.
“The stories I heard…of grief, loss, death. We were doing this 12 hours a day. At the end of each day, most of us were crying like babies,” he said. declared. “But, even though we couldn’t replace everything they lost, it was an honor to be there for them and to do what we could.”
Watkins then volunteered with the Red Cross during the Texas floods in 2016 and the Oregon wildfires in 2020.
He says service to others is a great way to make sure he never gets too focused on his own worries.
When he holds up a thank you letter he received from President Obama, honoring his work, he beams.
“I never thought I would get something like this,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion and pride. “I also never thought I would enter a doctoral program.”
News from Our Shoes: A Newspaper for Raleigh’s Homeless Community
Interviewing people in need was second nature to Watkins, who had founded a newspaper by and for the Raleigh homeless community several years earlier.
At the time, Watkins was in transitional housing at Emmaus House in Raleigh. He wanted to create a publication that would give people experiencing homelessness a platform – to showcase their talents, use their voice and help break down stereotypes about homeless people.
“Everything that was printed was done by homeless people, all of the artwork, the poetry and the writing. It gave them a chance to show off their talents,” Watkins said.
The Carolinian newspaper printed 3,000 hard copies of Watkins’ article, titled News From Our Shoes.
Watkins continued to work his way out of homelessness, while simultaneously using what he was learning to help others.
“One of the pitfalls of coming out of homelessness is learning to trust others again. So many people won’t even look you in the eye when you’re homeless,” he said.
Through his work in the newspaper, he began to connect with people who would help him up.
“I met a family who came to the shelter and wanted people to come celebrate Thanksgiving at their house. I didn’t want to go there at first, I didn’t want to be the subject of someone’s Sunday dinner. other,” he said. “But they wrapped me up like they’d known me for years.”
One by one, Watkins met people who brought him closer to his dreams.
“So many homeless people, we need a helping hand, not an outstretched hand,” he said.
Along with his awards, degrees and letter from Obama, Watkins has a photo wall of the people who helped shape his life into what it is today.
“We don’t do it alone. We do it together,” he said. “Every day I wake up and make good choices because I want them to be proud of me. I want them to feel that I was worth their investment.”
Graduated from college – again and again and again
Become dr. Michael Watkins was his life’s dream.
In 2015, he made the courageous decision to return to school.
“I was scared! I was sitting with all these young students and I felt like I didn’t fit in,” he said.
He started with an associate’s degree in medical office administration. A photo of him wearing a cap and robe appeared on his social media feed, and dozens of encouraging comments were received.
“Although I was proud of this accomplishment, I wanted more,” he said.
So he transferred to Campbell University, a university he had always dreamed of attending. He graduated in 2020.
“Again, I was proud of this achievement, but it still wasn’t enough,” he said. “So I started to pursue my master’s studies at Walden University.”
He just graduated in May 2022.
There is only one achievement left for her to pursue: a doctorate.
He was accepted into this program this year and intends to become Dr. Michael Watkins within two years.
He says he is still scared and can hardly believe how far he has come. Now, instead of sitting among students 20 years younger than him, he’s sitting among doctors and surgeons – still feeling intimidated, but still as determined as ever.
“All these top experts, and here I am: just a former homeless man going back to school,” Watkins said.
As he studies healthcare administration among his professional-level classmates, Watkins thinks he has a unique insight to offer the healthcare world: uncovering gaps in medical care for homeless people. . He hopes to continue this search, to find another way to help those in need, just as others have helped him.