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BRCC student goes from prison to top N.C. award

Paralee Cox, posing at Blue Ridge Community College, won the Dallas Herring Achievement Award from the North Carolina Community College System. She graduates Saturday with a surgical technology degree. Paralee Cox, posing at Blue Ridge Community College, won the Dallas Herring Achievement Award from the North Carolina Community College System. She graduates Saturday with a surgical technology degree.

Paralee Cox left behind a background in drug trafficking for a community college degree and certificate as a surgical technician, a turnaround so impressive that she is the North Carolina Community College System student of the year for 2022.

“It was very dysfunctional,” Cox, 31, said of her childhood. “I grew up with lots of drugs and lots of violence and abuse for many years and then finally I was placed into foster care.”
Although her grandfather adopted her when she was about 9, “I didn’t know what love was or that you could be loved. I was in my own dysfunctional reality. So I just decided to run away and I ran to the streets.”
She started doing “lots of drugs and selling lots of drugs … until I caught my charges in 2012,” she said. “And I still bounced around (while the charges were pending) until 2014 when I landed in Hazelton federal prison” in West Virginia.
Matter-of-factly, she describes the charges as “manufacture and deliver methamphetamine with a gun attachment.”
“I just grew up with drugs and drugs is what I knew,” she said.
She didn’t know trafficking well enough to avoid getting popped by the feds. Sentenced to five years in prison with four years of probation, she continued to ply her trade in prison as she had on the streets.
“Put in prison, if you don’t have nobody there to support you, you find a way to support yourself, and I did,” she said.

‘You’re better than this’

A correctional officer who had tried over and over to reach her finally succeeded.
“You’re better than this,” he told her. “I don’t know what you’re going through. But eventually you’re going to talk to me and I was like ‘No, I’m not talking to you. I’m not gonna get that reputation.’”
“And eventually I broke down,” she said. “And he ended up talking to me and I had a really heartfelt conversation with him and he was right. All I had known my whole life was drugs, and all I was doing in prison was the same thing — hustling. And I worked my way to looking in the mirror and asking God if he would please help me. I need help, and I can’t do it by myself.”
She transferred to another prison in West Virginia and joined its firefighter training program.
“I got certified firefighter I, firefighter II with hazmat awareness, and was able to go out into the community and actually help fight the fires and that helped build my confidence up,” she said.
She also joined a youth awareness program where inmates speak to middle and high school students “about what led us to prison” in the hope that “by sharing our histories and what got us to where we were that maybe it’d be like an eye opener for somebody else to ask for help to get out of their situations.”

BRCC met Cox ‘where she was’

The award she won is named for Dallas Herring, often called “the father of the North Carolina Community College System.” Dr. Herring believed the role of community colleges was “taking people where they are and carrying them as far as they can go.” When Cox first wrote a letter to BRCC she was still incarcerated.
Released from prison in August 2018, she enrolled in BRCC the next year. She graduates this weekend with a surgical tech certification. She’s already working in the operating room of Pardee UNC Health. She’s juggled school and work while she and her husband also are raising boys ages 3, 7 and 15.
She credits Stacy Hill, of the NC Works program, and BRCC President Laura Leatherwood for taking her where she was.
“They’ve just helped me on my journey,” she said. “And I’m very grateful for their opportunity to see that I was very determined and just for them taking that moment to guide me.”
And for others who may be facing long odds, for whatever reason, she hopes the takeaway is “It’s possible.”
“When you have a record hanging over your head, nine times out of 10 it follows you and it will always follow you,” she said. “And I just hope that they know that there’s going to be a door that opens. You just have to keep fighting for what you want. You just have to keep showing up every day. Look yourself in the mirror every morning like, ‘I got this.’ It’s gonna be hard, but eventually something will happen. …
“I’m a very big advocate for second chances,” she said.