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Raymond Haug was caught in a cycle of addiction, homelessness and prison. With the help of scholarships, he has transformed his life and found a calling in mechanical engineering.

By Jamie Swenson | Photo by Dennis Wise | March 2023

The last time Raymond Haug got out of prison, he had no friends or family waiting to pick him up. He had no new clothes to change into. All he had was his state-issued prison sweatsuit, a brown  paper bag with his housing voucher paperwork, and a faint glimmer of hope.

A prison guard dropped him off at Everett Station, where he sat on a bench out front and reflected on his years of homelessness, addiction, crime and incarceration. Fighting intense shame and doubt, he considered the monumental goals ahead of him: Stay sober and earn an education.

Then he stood up and walked to Everett Community College (EvCC) to apply for admission.

A life transformed

Nearly seven years later, Haug has transformed his life. He’s a University of Washington senior majoring in mechanical engineering, with two SpaceX internships under his belt. His wife, Althea, is earning her master’s in teaching at the UW, and they have two young children.

Respected by his professors and peers, Haug has earned several scholarships that made his education possible at EvCC and the UW. “The scholarships have meant more than anything to me,” says Haug. “The awards make me feel like I do belong in school. It’s helped me live the life I’m living now.”

But “Old Ray,” as he calls his past self, will always be part of him. Because of his prison time, Haug has never been approved for an apartment rental and was repeatedly turned down for jobs. When he used a computer at the EvCC welcome center to apply, he half- expected security to escort him out.

“Coming from the world I did, recovering from addiction,” he says, “my brain still tells me I don’t deserve the life I’m living.”

In college, Haug felt he had to hide his past. But when an EvCC professor, seeing his talent for math and chemistry, urged him to apply for a job in the tutoring center, Haug had to sit down with human resources and go over every detail of his history of addiction and crime. It was painful and nerve-wracking, but he impressed HR with his commitment to recovery and academic success. He got the job—and started to see the value of sharing his story.

Breaking the cycle

When Haug was 5, his father died of a drug overdose. As a teen, Haug was in and out of juvenile detention. At 15 he slept outside for the first time, under Montlake Bridge. He held up cardboard signs on the street corner and worked odd jobs. But as his heroin addiction progressed, he turned to crime, receiving the first of several robbery sentences when he was 18. So began a brutal cycle of incarceration, release, relapse and re-incarceration.

Years later, when he found himself locked in the same solitary-confinement cell during two consecutive sentences, something clicked: “I decided that if I was going to get it together, I had to do so in prison—not when I was back out on the street.”

In a drug treatment course in prison, Haug learned of the Post-Prison Education Program (PPEP), a nonprofit that helps connect the formerly incarcerated with postsecondary education. A 2018 study funded by the Department of Justice found that people who participated in correctional education were 48% less likely to return to prison within three years. But it wasn’t just that for Haug. It was the possibility that he could reinvent himself and discover talents he didn’t know he had.

With the help of PPEP, Haug got his college financial aid application in order. Then, he was released.

You can

Before long, Haug was living in sober housing, volunteering with Narcotics Anonymous (NA), enrolled at EvCC and working as a tutor. He also taught himself how to fix up cars and motorcycles. One day in chemistry class, Haug showed his professor photos of a bike he was building—a fully custom hardtail bobber.

“He was like, ‘Why aren’t you an engineering major?’” remembers Haug. “But I had never heard of engineering. I didn’t know what it was.” As Haug discovered all that engineering entailed, he was excited to make it his major.

The more Haug’s peers and professors recognized his talents, the more he opened up. He began applying for and receiving scholarships, sharing a little more of his background each time.  Then he told his story as a speaker at a scholarship breakfast.

“I was crying the whole time,” says Haug. “I was so grateful to be respected by my peers who weren’t from prison. The impact they had—all they had to do was tell me, ‘You can.’”

Launchpad UW

As Haug set his sights on transferring to a university, he applied for and received the Martin Family Foundation Achievement Scholarship, which supports students at Washington state community colleges who hope to complete their baccalaureate at the UW. Then he got the good news that he’d been accepted to the UW.

Haug was drawn to the University’s strong mechanical engineering program and the UW Formula Motorsports Team, a student organization that designs, builds and competes with electric formula-style race cars. He hoped that would be his launchpad to an internship that would set the course for his career.

Haug’s first year at the UW was in the midst of the pandemic, and while his classes were online, he “practically lived in the machine shop” with other students on the Formula team.

“As a transfer student, you have half as much time to start a relationship with your university,” says Haug. “The Formula team paid huge dividends and made me feel like a part of the school.”  It also paid dividends in experience, helping him land two internships with spacecraft company SpaceX, where he worked on the pressurized ground systems team—helping to maintain production equipment and the supply of gas across the SpaceX campus for flight tests.

Working alongside technicians, Haug brought his problem-solving to the forefront, figuring out coding problems and helping install piping and control panels. “My background fits into that divergent thinking they want to grow,” he says. “I’m a good fit because I’ve had to be so adaptive my whole life.”

Change is possible

Haug was thrilled to help build ships that go to space, but he’s also committed to making a difference on Earth. He has enjoyed volunteering with NA and mentoring youth involved with the criminal justice system. And in October he spoke at a conference for STEM-OPS, which works to include STEM learning opportunities in prison. “It’s my responsibility to help,” he says. “What’s the point of making it if I don’t help the person behind me?”

That’s why he continues to share his story. “All that I did in the past and all I’m doing now—they’re not exclusive of one another,” says Haug, who graduates this month. “So I hope that when you see someone holding a sign on 45th Street, you know that that was me, and you’ll remember that change is possible.”