From addict to college graduate: Washington woman battles back from drugs

Graduation was extra special for a University of Washington student, who overcame drug addiction and is now pursuing her goal of becoming an attorney.

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Virginia Burton, 48, a mother of three, received her degree in political science last month, KYTV reported. It is a long way from her life as a drug addict, bouncing in and out of jail since she was a juvenile.

“I honestly thought I’d die on a park bench with a needle in my arm or by (a) gunshot to the head,” Burton wrote in a Facebook post last month. “I would’ve never in a million years thought my life would look the way it does today.”

Burton said she first smoked marijuana with her mother when she was 6 years old, was taking methamphetamine when she was 12, and was smoking crack at 14, WBNS reported.

“By the time I was 15 years old I was a full-blown drug addict,” Burton told the television station.

Burton was one of seven children in her family, and she said her father had been to jail on drug charges. She added that her mother “had this plan” to smoke marijuana with her brothers, and she was pressured to try it.

“I come from a family where people just aren’t nice. And I was really sensitive as a kid and got picked on a lot, and I was pretty much harassed into it,” Burton told University of Washington Magazine in December 2020. “They wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to tell, and so if I did it, too, the likelihood of me telling was a lot slimmer.”

Burton made several trips to juvenile hall. As an adult she was jailed three times, including twice with her mother, WBNS reported. It seemed as if her ambition to become an attorney would never happen.

“I thought I had destroyed my opportunities to practice law in any kind of way,” Burton told University of Washington Magazine. “I started training dogs when I was in prison, from 1997 to 2000. And I really liked that. When I got out of prison that time I started managing a doggy daycare and boarding kennel. I was clean for a little while.”

After another stint in prison, Burton began working in social services about eight years ago. After supervising several programs, Burton decided to give college a try.

“When I started school, I didn’t necessarily think that there was a potential for me to practice law.” Burton told University of Washington Magazine. “It wasn’t until the last maybe nine months that I recognized that it was possible, and then I had people in my life that might be able to help make that happen.”

Burton decided to return to school in 2017 after she became frustrated with the criminal justice system.

“My 28-year-old son served (a) prison sentence for something he did as a juvenile,” Burton told University of Washington Magazine. “They charged him as an adult. He doesn’t have the same kind of issues, but stuff happened in foster care because that’s where they ended up growing up. So they were impacted.

“His sister is in active addiction, not to the extent that I was, but she’s destructive to herself. So my lifestyle, even though she wasn’t directly exposed, still impacted her, and she’s dealing with things the same exact way. It’s scary. I’ll continue to assess that process as the years go by.”

Burton earned her associate’s degree from South Seattle College in 2018. As a junior at the University of Washington, she was selected for a Truman Scholarship, the university said in a news release. She was one of 773 applicants, and only 62 were chosen. She was also a Martin Honor Scholar and earned $74,000 in scholarships, according to University of Washington Magazine.

“Making the decision to return to school so late in life was a challenge for me. I thought I might be too old to start my life over again and that learning might be harder than I imagined,” Burton told the university. “I decided that I would tackle each challenge I faced with the same drive I tackle mountains. There is no excuse to stop moving forward. If I want to reach the summit, I must keep climbing.”

Now, Burton is looking ahead to a brighter future, although she realizes she still has some obstacles. But she said she was grateful.

“If you would have told me that my life would look like it does today eight-and-a-half years ago, I would have called you a liar,” Burton told WBNS.

Burton’s original Facebook post went viral, and she followed up with a post thanking people for their support.

“Most of my journey was not graceful, however, it has been beautiful and tremendously painful,” Burton wrote. “But, I would not change a moment of it. This is just the beginning for me. I share openly so others know there is hope for them to change.”