Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Years at CVTC a Time of Rebirth for Graduate

Michelle Johnson enrolled soon after release from prison

Article Photo - Years at CVTC a Time of Rebirth for Graduate

CVTC graduate Michelle Johnson poses with her children, Tim and Grace Johnson after the commencement ceremony May 17.

With a career that allows her to work outside and help things grow, Michelle Johnson enjoys every day of her life. That wasn’t always the case. Those 18 months in prison come to mind.

The Chippewa Valley Technical College graduate relishes getting her hands dirty most days, knowing that getting clean is what allows her to do what she loves, with her personal growth and the growth of the plants and trees she cares for intertwined.

Earning associate degrees in both Business Management and Landscape, Plant and Turf Management, Michelle joined 691 graduates in 63 programs honored at the CVTC Spring Friday, May 17. The largest program was Nursing-Associate Degree with 80 graduates, followed by Business Management with 38, Electrical Power Distribution with 35 and Criminal Justice with 32.

CVTC also held a commencement ceremony at its River Falls Campus May 16, honoring 47 graduates in 10 programs.

“It feels really good,” Michelle said of being sober for six and a half years. “I am proud of myself, but I had a lot of help.” Some of that help, she acknowledged, came from CVTC.

Originally from Phillips, Johnson, 53, was married, raised a daughter and a stepson, and divorced in 2010 with alcohol as part of the problems that sent the marriage on a downslide, she said.

“I was homeless for a time. I was couch surfing for a while, or staying at the homeless shelter in Appleton,” Michelle said. “I got a job, but lost it because I was drunk.”

Michelle moved to Eau Claire, living in a friend’s basement or living out of her van. “I was only here a month when I was arrested.”

The arrest, her fourth, was poorly timed. Had she made it a few more weeks to the fifth year, the latest arrest wouldn’t have resulted in a felony charge. But she showed up at the sentencing drunk, lost privileges and sat in jail for months, drank when she got out and was ultimately revoked from probation and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

At least there she was able to enter a substance abuse treatment program. “It was extremely helpful,” Michelle said. “It was like my me-time. I had been with my husband since I was 16, and it wasn’t me. I wasn’t Michelle Johnson. In treatment, they taught me life skills and how to do the right thing. I learned to like myself and laugh and be proud of who I am. It just changed everything.”

Once out, Michelle got an old call center job back, then looked into CVTC. The Landscape, Plant and Turf Management program jumped out at her. She enrolled in 2014.

“I got to know my lead instructor Susan Frame very well,” Michelle recalls. “I was super-enjoying it. The program was everything I wanted to do with my life. Everyone at CVTC has been so helpful to me, from instructors to the custodial staff – everyone.”

Michelle became an honors student and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. However, she didn’t quite finish the program in two years, but wanted to stay in school. She enrolled in Business Management and excelled at that, too. She picked up her last credits from both programs and graduated with a double major.

In July 2018 she landed a dream job, close to CVTC. She joined the grounds crew at UW-Eau Claire, working full time while completing her Business Management program.

Michelle is living in a better place now, in more ways than one. She was able to get a better apartment and replace the old van. But mostly she replaced the old destructive and dangerous habits. It was fitting that she graduated from CVTC in the spring. She crossed the stage to receive her degrees after a time of rebirth. She’s ready for a new season of life.

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