Crystal Nelson is a UW Bothell grad who’ll soon attend Seattle University School of Law. A recovering addict, she dropped out of school after eighth grade and spent 17 years on the streets. (Photo by Dan Bates / The Herald)

Crystal Nelson is a UW Bothell grad who’ll soon attend Seattle University School of Law. A recovering addict, she dropped out of school after eighth grade and spent 17 years on the streets. (Photo by Dan Bates / The Herald)

From the streets to law school, now she’s on the Husky 100

The UW Bothell grad’s goals grew from her struggle with substance abuse and losing her children.

The Husky 100 is a designation for students who make “the most of their time at UW.” Crystal Nelson is a recent University of Washington graduate. Considering her struggles, it might seem unlikely she’d qualify for that auspicious list.

Yet Nelson, who began using hard drugs at 14 and left school after the eighth grade, is among this year’s distinguished 100 — deservedly so.

“From life on the streets to law school,” says the headline on a UW Bothell website article about Nelson.

Now 35, she graduated from UW Bothell — with a 4.0 grade point average — at the end of winter quarter in March. With a bachelor of arts degree in law, economics and public policy, she’ll start in August at Seattle University School of Law. With a $40,000 per year scholarship to law school, her aim is to work in a drug court program.

Nelson is a mother of two — with a daughter, 15, and a son who is 12 — who grew up in Everett and now lives in Sultan. She has a full-time job at a Monroe auto parts store. She came to UW Bothell after graduating in 2016 from Everett Community College. There, she earned an associate’s degree in political science and government and a 4.0 GPA.

“I had no idea what I was capable of,” said Nelson, who credits a 12-step fellowship program for more than five years of sobriety.

During a frank conversation on the UW Bothell campus Tuesday, Nelson shared the 17-year chapter of her life that wasn’t filled with achievement.

“Mom left a bad marriage,” Nelson said. She recalled staying in a Highway 99 motel and living in a one-bedroom apartment in Everett’s Casino Road area with her mother and three sisters. At first she excelled at Explorer Middle School.

By age 13, grades that once landed her on an honor roll had taken a dive. Teachers intervened, she said, but there was no stopping her involvement with troubled kids, risky behavior and brushes with the law.

Drinking and marijuana seemed to “turn on a switch,” Nelson said. Describing an all-too-common downward path, she said “nothing held me back” from trying harder drugs.

Nelson said she finished eighth grade, “barely,” and spent a couple weeks at Everett’s Cascade High School before dropping out. She briefly attended Sequoia High School, but never earned a diploma. She left home, spent years couch-surfing and worked at a McDonald’s near Silver Lake.

Her family relocated to the Tri-Cities, but Nelson said the move didn’t change her habits. She was sent several times to inpatient drug treatment.

A turnaround began when, at 20, she became a mother. With a daughter, she knew she had to stop using. She didn’t know she wouldn’t be able to do it without help. During that period, she earned some credits at Edmonds Community College and thought of becoming an engineer.

By 23, she’d had her son. Drinking led to renewed drug use. By 25, she had left college and was homeless. Her children were often with her, but sometimes she left them with her parents.

Nelson said she was “utterly hopeless” and weighed 50 pounds less than she does now when the real wake-up came. Her son’s father went to court to gain custody of the children.

“The judge was mad at me, but said, ‘Get your head straight. It’s no longer safe for your children to be in your presence,’” Nelson recalled. At the time, she was staying in a motor home without power in the Clearview area.

“It was the tipping point,” she said. “I just decided I couldn’t do it anymore.” At 30, with the help of the 12-step program, she said she decided “I need to be abstinent from everything” — even a sip of beer.

The legal process involved in getting her children back inspired Nelson to work toward law school. Mentors and experiences during college added to her confidence and ambitions.

She took part in the Washington D.C. Human Rights Seminar. It’s a six-day program for about 20 UW Bothell students under the leadership of Ron Krabill, an associate professor in the university’s School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences. Krabill, she said, was a mentor who saw that her goals came from personal struggles. “He knew who I was,” she said.

Nelson also took a UW Bothell class inside the Monroe Correctional Complex. Half the students in the course, taught by UW Bothell arts lecturer Gary Carpenter, were inmates screened and enrolled by University Beyond Bars, a Seattle nonprofit. Now Nelson volunteers at the prison.

It’s been quite a discovery, seeing that “I belong here,” said Nelson, as students walked through the Bothell campus. Soon, she’ll be in more rarefied surroundings — a law school classroom.

She’ll never forget starting at UW Bothell. Now, she’s one of 10 from the campus included with this year’s Husky 100 success stories.

“The very first day of my very first class I was crying, thinking I can’t believe I’m here,” she said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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