‘It Doesn’t Seem Real’

Michael Watkins overcame addiction and homelessness to earn a Campbell degree. The 61-year-old alumnus’ sights are now set on a doctorate.

It wasn’t the post-degree future he had imagined, but just months after earning his undergraduate degree from Campbell University — a journey preceded by 20-plus years of homelessness — Michael Watkins found himself once again on the streets in downtown Raleigh.

The unexpected twist came in the form of an eviction notice before his first graduate school courses were to begin. Unlike his first experience — spurred by a six-month prison sentence for breaking-and-entering and larceny and marred by addiction and an overall lack of self-worth and direction in his life — Watkins was equipped to handle the setback. He stayed in hotels, and when that funding ran out, he found shelters in local churches. He took to social media to journal his experience, which encouraged others to help him get back on his feet. Within a month, he was back on his feet and in a new apartment, ready to hit the books again.

He credits his growth as a person — helped in great deal by his experience as a student — and the generosity of others for helping him prevent a repeat of his previous experience.

“I just knew that was something I never wanted to go back to again,” he says. “And when I found myself in that situation again, I wanted to change it [immediately]. I knew I could, and I knew now that there were generous people out there willing to help me.” 

Watkins’ struggles were chronicled in a 2018 Campbell Magazine feature story, “The degree — and the life — that slipped away.” Then, he was two years away from a day he long imagined — walking the stage, shaking the president’s hand and being handed his degree. When the day came, it wasn’t quite the same scene. Watkins’ graduation was virtual, the in-person event another casualty of the early months of the COVID pandemic.

This, too, failed to deter him. Watkins enrolled in graduate courses at Walden University, an online-only institution based in Minnesota and earned his master’s degree in health care administration this past May. He then applied for entry in the school’s doctoral program, which began in the fall.

When it’s all said and done, he’ll be Dr. Watkins. He’ll also be 64. A registered felon with hardly a “long future” in the field ahead of him, Watkins is aware that his three-framed diplomas won’t necessarily mean a lengthy career in the health care field.

But that’s not the point, he says. It’s about proving himself to himself.

“When I look back over my life, I think about all the things I’ve been through and where I came from — all of that to where I am now,” he says. “I know I certainly haven’t ‘made it,’ but I have to say … I’m so proud of myself. That’s one phrase I’ve never been able to use in my entire life. Michael Watkins, I’m proud of you. I went through this horrific struggle, and I emerged from it. And you know what, it blows me away. When I look at my bookcase and see these degrees, it just doesn’t seem real. But it’s real, and I’m proud of it.”


Billy Liggett Director of News & Publications

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