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OSU-OKC grad defies overwhelming odds to win award

OSU-OKC grad defies overwhelming odds to win award

Catherine Dixon-Shelton named Walter O. Mason TRIO Achiever Award

(OKLAHOMA CITY) Aug. 19, 2019 -- Catherine Dixon-Shelton doesn’t dwell on the past, but she does remember her childhood and teen years when surviving was all that mattered.

She remembers being routinely left unsupervised for days at a time in a house where utilities and water often were shut off. If she needed water, she filled a bucket from a neighbor’s outside faucet.

She remembers people coming and going from her house at all hours even when her mother wasn’t at home. One of those people was a sexual predator who abused her for years. To deter him, Dixon-Shelton drank water right before bedtime so she would wet the bed and he’d leave her alone.

When she was almost 18, homeless and a lonely senior preparing to graduate from Millwood High School in Oklahoma City, she remembers the death of her twins — born prematurely at 26 weeks — and the overwhelming loss and grief that followed.

Dixon-Shelton remembers she always had an address but says she never had a home. In hindsight, she’s not sure whether that part of her life was living or just existing.

“For me, it was normal to live like that,” she said. “I didn't see anything extraordinary about it. It was survival thinking. It was, ‘OK if you urinate in your bed you're surviving through the night. Then you'll wake up in the morning, and you'll shower, and you'll be clean. And then you'll go to school, and you won't be at home.’ It was that type of thinking even as a little girl.”

Now 42, Dixon-Shelton recently added another memory — one radically different from her early past and meaningfully symbolic of just how far she’s come.

Earlier this year, Dixon-Shelton stepped to the front of the banquet room at the Hyatt Regency in Tulsa and accepted the annual Walter O. Mason TRIO Achiever Award from the Oklahoma Division of Student Assistance (ODSA).

“Catherine was chosen for this award because she is the epitome of what it is to be TRIO,” said Deborah Morgan, director of Project SOAR-Student Support Services at Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City (OSU-OKC). “She overcame many barriers to getting her education.”

TRIO includes several federal programs, such as Project SOAR-Student Support Services, designed to help low-income and first-generation college students overcome obstacles to obtaining an associate or baccalaureate degree. The statewide TRIO award is given to one recipient each year.

“She was an underprivileged student who beat the odds,” Morgan said. “When the world told her that statistically she couldn’t or shouldn’t be able to succeed, she defied the odds and came out on top. Catherine went from being a single, homeless mom to a successful woman with a master’s degree.”

The journey

Dixon-Shelton’s life began to shift when she was 20. She was living in an abusive relationship, eight months pregnant, and determined to give her child a better childhood than the one she had experienced.

Her first step was to leave the abusive relationship and attempt to reunite with her mother. When the reunion with her mother resulted in an irreconcilable altercation, Dixon-Shelton walked from her mother’s house to Rose Home, a now-defunct shelter for homeless pregnant women in Oklahoma City. She remembers arriving at the shelter wearing everything she owned at the time: leggings, a blouse and a pair of flip-flops.

Even as she struggled with the deep trauma of her childhood and teen years, at the shelter, Dixon-Shelton began the journey of transforming her life. With the help of the shelter’s house mother, she went to Wright Business School, got a job as an administrative assistant at Platt College, and moved into Section 8 housing.

While riding the bus to her job at Platt she noticed the OSU-OKC campus. Then, someone told her Pell grants could help pay for college. Despite finding the process of applying for college and financial aid confusing and overwhelming, she persisted and began classes at OSU-OKC in 1999.

Her first few semesters were brutal. At the outset, Dixon-Shelton took a Compass test, which can help show areas of aptitude or deficiency for a student. In her case, the Compass test helped identify specific areas where Dixon-Shelton needed help.

“When I took the Compass test and found out that I had to do remedial classes, I cried. I felt like I wouldn’t be able to do it,” Dixon-Shelton said. “I was so dead set in my head that I couldn’t do it. I didn't feel like I was good enough.”

After withdrawing from several classes, she was on the verge of giving up when she heard about Student Support Services (now known as Project SOAR-Student Support Services) and turned to the program for help and guidance.

“OSU-OKC literally feels like home. I was embraced there,” Dixon-Shelton said. “Student Support Services gave me a quiet space to study and provided tutoring. I was able to articulate myself well and get good grades. It all made a tremendous difference. After overcoming obstacles, my confidence increased.”

Dixon-Shelton graduated from OSU-OKC in 2003 with an associate degree in substance abuse counseling. She transferred to the University of Central Oklahoma and obtained a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 2006. A master’s degree in criminal justice came next.

During her time at UCO, Dixon-Shelton also sought counseling to help her deal with the trauma of her childhood. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, therapy helped her learn how to cope with reoccurring episodes of both.

“She overcame things that are often overwhelming, things that can leave people stuck or unable to heal,” Morgan said. “Yet she was able to get her associate degree, bachelor's degree, master's degree, and then she worked to help others in situations similar to what she faced.”

Dixon-Shelton has worked in a range of social service programs — as a juvenile probation officer, an adult probation officer and a drug rehabilitation specialist. She's focused on using her life experiences to help people.

“I continue to strive and look into areas where I can help others,” Dixon-Shelton said. “I tell people you can't change the environment, but you can change the circumstances of the environment. You stay inside the box — you're not going to be able to remove yourself. The only way you can change the circumstances of the environment is to think outside the box.”

Married 17 years, with three grown children, today Dixon-Shelton has a home and a family she loves that love her in return. Recently, she even wrote an essay about a turning point in her life for an anthology of stories called “Fabulous New Life.” The collection focuses on women who have transformed their lives.

Dixon-Shelton’s essay echoes the pain of a girl who survived a childhood filled with scarcity, deprivation and precious little love. But it is the words of the woman who learned to love herself and beat the odds that resonates.

“Throughout my transformation, I have grown to love me. I am scarred, yes, but my scars do not interrupt the flow of blessings and grace bestowed upon me,” she wrote. “I have been hurt, yes, but my hurts allow me to see the beauty in the wounded and angry. My imperfections are unique to who I am, and my footprints are my legacy.”