ASHLAND - It felt surreal for Ronnie Hopkins to be standing in the Hawkins-Conard Student Center at Ashland University on his graduation day, wearing a cap and gown for the first time.
"I'm soaking it all in right now," Hopkins said. "When I walked in the bookstore, I saw all the t-shirts and all the cool stuff. I didn't even graduate high school, but now I could get an AU sticker for my vehicle or I could put this AU thing on my desk. It's a really good feeling. I'm alumni."
Hopkins' educational journey began behind bars at Grafton Correctional Institution, where he served three years for manufacturing methamphetamine. While in prison, Hopkins studied to earn his GED and began taking classes through Ashland University's correctional education program using a digital inmate education program called JPay’s Lantern.
Saturday, he walked across the stage at Jack Miller Stadium to accept his diploma after earning an associate of arts degree in general studies.
"I want to be clear that God changed me, but he used education to do it," Hopkins said.
A rocky start
"Where are you from?" is not an easy question for Hopkins to answer.
The 35-year-old now lives in Canal Fulton, but "home" changed a lot for Hopkins as he was growing up.
"My mom was sick, so we moved from California to West Virginia to Ohio for kidney centers. She was experiencing kidney failure," Hopkins said, adding that his mother was also legally blind.
Hopkins' dad was addicted to drugs and was incarcerated on and off for most of Hopkins' childhood. When Hopkins' dad was around, he was abusive.
"It was really tough. We were poor, and I saw a lot of abuse," Hopkins said. "My brother was older, and he started doing drugs at a young age. I sort of followed in his footsteps."
Hopkins started smoking marijuana and drinking beer before experimenting with acid and then discovering speed, which turned into his drug of choice.
Looking back, Hopkins thinks he used drugs because he felt cheated out of his childhood and felt sorry for himself.
"It wasn't necessarily how it made me feel because I always needed more, so it obviously didn't make me feel too great," Hopkins said. "It was just, I felt entitled so this is what I was going to do."
A series of bad choices
Hopkins was 15 when his mother died. He moved from Akron to West Virginia to live with an aunt and uncle.
Though his relatives provided a stable and loving home and brought him to church regularly, Hopkins still felt restless.
At 17, he moved out to live with his brother.
"It was immediately a downward spiral," Hopkins said. "I dropped out of high school and started doing drugs every single day."
Over the next 14 years, the problems snowballed. Hopkins began doing meth and then started making the drug, both to support his addiction and to make money.
In January 2014, Hopkins was arrested and charged with manufacturing methamphetamine.
While in jail in Summit County, he continued his illegal behavior, right up until the night before his sentencing hearing.
That night, Hopkins was placed in solitary confinement after getting into a fight with another inmate.
"I found myself in my cell playing 'Let's Make A Deal' with God, telling God if he gets me this lesser time or gets me this furlough so I could go home for a week, then I would trust and follow him," Hopkins said.
In court the next day, things didn't go Hopkins' way. The judge sentenced him to three years in prison.
But for some reason, rather than anger, Hopkins felt peace.
"When they put me back in my cell, I remember I punched the wall, just trying to get anger flowing and it didn't work," Hopkins said.
He turned the radio in his cell to 95.5 The Fish, and the David Crowder song "How He Loves Us" was playing.
Hopkins fell to his knees, tears flowing down his face. He reached up his hands and told God he would trust and follow him.
"I had been carrying this anger and self-pity, and I remember giving it to God right there," Hopkins said. "It felt like the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders."
Looking back, Hopkins said, it was hitting bottom that made him choose to change his life.
"Rock bottom is a tough place to be, but it's s also a great place to build a foundation," he said.
The first thing Hopkins did when he got to prison was sign up for GED classes, figuring if God would give him a second chance, he needed to work for it. He studied five days a week and ended up scoring so well he was asked to tutor other inmates.
As soon as he was allowed, Hopkins began attending college classes through Ashland University. His education was free through federal Pell Grants.
At first, the classes were in person, but Hopkins found the noise and the behavior of some of the other inmates distracting.
That's when Hopkins discovered JPay's Lantern program, which allowed him to take online classes on a tablet. He found community with a group other inmates who would work and study together before the other inmates woke up.
After two semesters, Hopkins was released from prison. He continued his coursework from home, wrapping up his final credits this spring.
"Here we are today, I'm walking across the stage this morning because of the access to these things that I had through JPay and through Ashland University," Hopkins said.
Sharing the hope
Hopkins said the transformational power of his college experience comes not from the degree itself but from the feelings of accomplishment and hope it has given him.
"When I got my first report card from Ashland University and saw that I made the Dean's list, I saw for the first time in my life that I was worth the effort it was going to take to get better," Hopkins said.
"An associate's degree is an amazing thing, but it's more about the process of seeing people are invested in you, like Ashland and JPay. If they care enough to invest in me, it was my turn to invest in me."
He hopes to continue with higher education someday, but for now, Hopkins is focused on work and ministry.
Hopkins is youth director at his church, where his goal is His goal is to help teens in his youth group avoid the path he took.
He also landed a job in member assistance at Christian Healthcare Ministries, a faith-based healthcare cost-sharing non-profit organization in Barberton.
Though Hopkins is looking ahead to a brighter future, he doesn't hesitate to speak to groups or to reporters about his past.
"I share my story for two reasons," he said. "One is God gave me this to share it, not to keep it to myself. He gave me this hope because other people need it. The other reason is, if I tell my own story, other people can't tell it for me."