Date September 7, 2021
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Katherine Haley: A long journey, lit by learning

A lifelong love of learning served as a beacon for Katherine Haley, a third-year transfer student who overcame addiction to become a member of Brown’s incoming undergraduate cohort.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Many incoming undergraduates first set foot on Brown’s campus as prospective students or newly admitted ones. But Katherine Haley first came to College Hill when she was still a little girl growing up in Nashua, New Hampshire.

“We grew up poor, so one of the things my mom would do to entertain us was taking us to college campuses to just walk around,” she said. “We went to Brown a bunch of times… My brother and I both loved it.”

Last spring, Haley found herself walking Brown’s grounds again, but this time as a newly admitted transfer student, weighing a dozen offers from colleges and universities around the country — many that, like Brown, had extended her full tuition scholarships.

“I was walking around the main green looking at everything, looking at the students — and I’ve got to tell you, they looked super happy,” she said. “Something in me was like, ‘I think this is the one.’ It ended up not even being a decision.”

Haley’s full-circle journey seems fated. But for much of the two-decade span between these two moments, a Brown education felt far from her reach, she said. As a child, she loved school: With two parents battling addiction, the classroom was a “safe place” where she thrived. But after Haley briefly left high school to care for her younger sister, her relationship to school changed.

“It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it,” she said. “I just felt like I couldn’t relate to anybody at school anymore, and that no one could relate to me.”

Haley eventually dropped out, and her own, long struggle with substance abuse began. After her parents, who had since become sober, both died, Haley’s addiction intensified until she checked into a treatment center days before turning 26. In the months that followed, Haley said, she threw herself into her recovery.  

“I fell in love with the classroom setting, with having a structured education and a guide for my education — it was like I had leveled up. I loved it and I didn’t want to stop.”

Katherine Haley Incoming Transfer Student, Class of 2025
Katherine Haley, Class of 2023

Her mind soon traveled back to education, but self-doubt haunted her. “I wanted to go back to school, but I didn’t feel capable enough to do an associate’s degree and move on to a bachelor’s degree.”

She settled on a certificate program in substance abuse counseling offered at Bristol Community College in nearby Fall River, Massachusetts. But an orientation advisor suggested she switch to a full-time program to qualify for need-based tuition assistance. Haley took the plunge, enrolling in the school’s psychology program.

There, Haley once again thrived. “I started at BCC, and I just fell in love,” she said. Haley’s love of learning had never faltered. “When I was in active addiction and homeless, I carried my books with me,” she said. “I was able to read at night and kind of pretend I was somewhere else and someone else.”

But being back at school was different. “I fell in love with the classroom setting, with having a structured education and a guide for my education — it was like I had leveled up. I loved it and I didn’t want to stop.”

She didn’t. Haley maintained a perfect GPA while maintaining multiple student leadership roles and service commitments to her recovery program — accomplishments that earned her the opportunity to meet First Lady Jill Biden and the chance to represent her class as valedictorian when she received her associate’s degree last spring.

As she flourished at BCC, transferring to a bachelor’s program felt increasingly within reach, Haley said. She initially planned to apply to a single nearby school, but — upon the advice of an advisor who warned her not to “sell herself short” — she expanded her net to include a range of top schools across the country, including Brown.

As a third-year transfer at Brown, Haley plans to study literary arts — she is at work on a memoir on her experiences — and psychology, with a focus on evolutionary psychology and intergenerational trauma. “People within four generations of my family have died of causes directly related to drugs and alcohol,” she said. “It raises questions for me: How did this transfer across generations? To what degree is it environmental? To what degree is it genetic?” She aspires to receive her Ph.D. and become a psychology researcher after graduation.

While pursuing her studies, Haley will also continue her commitment to service — both through continued volunteer work with her recovery program and as a recipient of a Newman Civic Fellowship, a national award that recognizes students dedicated to being leaders and change-makers in their communities.

“I’m a big believer in the idea that, when you’re climbing up a ladder, you should reach back and pull people up,” she said.