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Stories of excellence: Jonathan Fox

Graduation is a special time at Mitchell. For Jonathan Fox, graduation is a testament to what can be achieved. While each graduate has their own story to share of challenges overcome and milestones reached, Fox’s story is unique–a story that is not often talked about in society in a positive light but nonetheless a powerful, inspirational story that deserves to be celebrated.

Fox’s story begins long before he came to Mitchell. “I’ve had a little experience in the field of substance use disorder,” he light-heartedly noted. Fox started drinking at age 11. He began using harder drugs including heroin and dropped out of high school at age 16. He came to Mitchell in 2007 to get a GED, but afterward took what he termed a sabbatical from school. His challenges with substance use disorder continued. He found himself in and out of treatment centers, intensive outpatient programs, probation, and even a few times, jail. At 23 years old, twelve years after beginning use, he was able to break the cycle, get sober and begin long-term recovery.

“I was not an individual that attempted to get sober or clean one time and was ultimately able to do that,” Fox said, touching on the cyclical nature of recovery. “It took support from many different treatment centers and many different individuals to reach the point of recovery that I needed. I consider myself very, very, very young in long-term recovery, according to my description. It’s a life-long process.”

He decided to continue education in 2015 and finally enrolled in spring 2016 in Human Services Technology program at Mitchell. “I want to help people,” he said, noting the reason behind his chosen degree. Fox finished classes in December 2017 and is currently taking classes toward a bachelor’s degree at Gardner Webb University. But continuing his education at a four-year institution was not always the plan. “I decided to come back with only the intention of getting an associate degree because that seemed like enough,” he shared. “I was inspired to go further through the guidance of instructors Nanci Burt and Sally Dellinger.” Fox noted that ultimately his drive came from within, but encouragement from these two faculty members planted a seed.

“They talked to me differently than most previous teachers. That made me realize I had the ability. They helped me push away things I had always been told by telling me I could do them if I’d like to. They accepted me and said, ‘you can do this,’” he noted. “That sparked something in me to attempt to achieve things. I felt like I had someone believe in me.”

Now five years in long-term recovery, Fox is preparing to walk in Mitchell’s 2018 graduation ceremony. He plans to continue work on his bachelor’s degree with a goal of obtaining a master’s in social work and a licensure in Licensed Clinical Social Work. “I want to put myself in a position to help as many people as possible, to continue bettering myself,” he said. “Ultimately, I believe if I can be of most use to myself and others, I will be happy.”

“In our society today,” Fox shared, “they say there is an opioid epidemic. That is absolutely true, even here in Statesville.” Recent reports can testify to that claim. In Iredell County and across the country, drug and opioid use is a frequent news topic. But Fox believes we can move the needle, even in Iredell County through greater understanding and more opportunities for care. “We need to change the stigma of someone seeking treatment through honesty and open-mindedness from all individuals in our society. There need to be advancements in what we can offer and the amount of services we can offer.” The science of substance abuse disorder is evolving in ways to better help those who suffer and to better help family and friends understand and support. Knowing more about the mental processes makes the disorder easier to comprehend and much more relatable.

“It’s a disconnect in ourselves,” Fox shared. “Whether you are someone suffering from substance abuse disorder or not, the disconnect is the same, it just outwardly manifests itself differently.”

Lessons he learned through the recovery process have helped shaped how he approaches education and life. Fox believes the things that hold us back are of our own making. While everyone needs support sometimes, ultimately the decision must come from within. “I have to be willing to do whatever it takes if there’s even a chance that I do feel better,” he said, recalling his recovery process. “If I can better my life, if there’s even a chance I cannot be in the same place that I used to be, I have to be willing to do things that either I do not like or that I’m not used to doing. That was no different in school. Things that I have done at Mitchell I had never done previously in school. I never gave it a true shot because I did not believe in myself. Not to say that right when I got here I did; but, I was willing to do just about whatever.” That willingness to step out of our comfort zone to make a change is a struggle faced by all individuals, regardless of background.

When asked what he would say to encourage someone to come to Mitchell or any other college, Fox posed a seemingly simple question. “What’s holding you back?” he said. “Ultimately, it comes down to not believing in yourself, I believe in that.” He encouraged others to step out of their comfort zone. “Give it a shot. What’s causing you to not believe that you can achieve what you want to achieve?”

On Friday, May 11, Fox will join over 500 other curriculum graduates as they walk across the stage set up in front of the Main Building on Mitchell’s historic Statesville Campus. It will not be the first graduation the College has seen in its over 160-year tenure, nor will it be the last. But for students like Fox, this graduation marks an achievement many may never have thought possible. And Fox admits he’s more than a little excited to be donning graduation regalia.

“This is the first time I’m ever going to be wearing a cap and gown. I’m pretty stoked.” Of course, he doesn’t plan on it being the last time he will be wearing regalia, but this ceremony will stand out. “This [graduating with an associate degree] feels more important to me than walking for higher degrees,” he said.

He noted that the journey to Friday’s ceremony was not easy, but it was certainly worth it. “My experience here at Mitchell was one of the most profound in my life because of this ‘stepping stone’ which shows an achievement that several years ago I did not see feasible for a person like me. Nor did I ever consider doing it. So it’s going to mean for me not only a stepping stone for great things to come but a true testament to what one person can do if they believe in themselves and other people believe in them. The piece of paper that I receive is going to be one of my greatest materialistic objects.” 

Editor’s note: This perspective first appeared on the Mitchell Community College website. It has been posted with the author’s permission.

Aaron Thompkins, digital media specialist at Mitchell Community College, produced the video at the top of this article.

The article was originally published on May 9, 2018 prior to the 2018 Commencement ceremony. Although the story references Friday, May 11 as the graduation ceremony, the ceremony was unexpectedly postponed until Saturday, May 12 (same location) due to inclement weather. Mr. Fox walked in the May 12 ceremony.

Megan Suber

Megan Suber, story-teller, mother and North Carolina native, serves as Public Information Officer at Mitchell Community College coordinating communication and marketing efforts. She believes in the transformative power of education — particularly at the community college level — and values every day that her work can have a positive impact on someone’s life.