NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) – Donna Pearson is a proud member of Lipscomb University Class of 2007.
But the Nashville resident, who earned her master's degree at age 57, has another title she's much less proud of—convicted felon.
"This addiction happened at age 37 and completely spiraled downhill," said Pearson, a former dental hygienist who served six years at the Tennessee Prison for Women.
She says inside those prison walls, healing happened.
"At intake I hit my knees and said, ‘God I want to be different’," Pearson said. "I was like a sponge, if you would, really, of ‘what do I need to do?’ If they told me to do cartwheels while I whistle Dixie to get sober, that's what I would've done.”
Pearson said she started learning about God, changed who she hung out with, and applied for the Lipscomb LIFE Program--college courses taught by Lipscomb professors inside the prison, where traditional students learn alongside inmates.
It’s paid for by private donors and even Lipscomb Staff.
Pearson applied for the program multiple times. In 2014, Donna got her shot.
"For like 2 hours every week, you weren't a prisoner,” said Pearson. “You were looked at with love, belief, with encouragement.”
"The whole university community aspires to bring new voices into our community, to challenge our thinking, to enhance our conversation," said Professor of History and Founding Director of LIFE Program, Dr. Richard Goode, who has led the program for 12 years.
"It's a natural fulfillment of our mission," added Goode.
Donna's prison sentence ended before earning enough credits to graduate.
Professors encouraged her to enroll as a regular Lipscomb student. See More
"There's still something small within you, a mark on your back that says you're a felon. But the fact is, I can hold my head up because God doesn't look at me like that. And I'm not going to look at myself like that. In December of 2017, I walked across the stage and got my bachelor's degree. At 55 years old, that's something I always dreamed about going back and doing, I accomplished," said Pearson.
But Donna's redemption story doesn't end there. She went back to the dentist office where she worked, before drugs entered the picture, to make amends.
Her bosses hired her back in a lesser position.
"I went in to get forgiveness and say ‘I'm sorry I let you down.’ I walked out with a hug around my neck and a job," said Pearson.
She enrolled in more classes--this time, to try and re-apply for her dental hygienist license.
Today, Pearson is once again a dental hygienist.
"You can change. You can follow those dreams that were hidden in your heart as a little boy or a little girl," said Pearson.