Julia Nelson successfully beat her demons. | Credit: Courtesy

It’s amazing that Julia Nelson is even alive. That she just graduated from the University of San Francisco (USF) is even more incredible. And that she received the Dean’s Medal for academic excellence is pretty much a miracle.

Nelson grew up in Santa Barbara in a grittier section of town than what’s normally shown in travel brochures. Her mom was a single parent in nursing school who supported the two of them with wages and tips from waitressing, and she was a caring, consistent presence despite all the time she had to devote to work and school.

But from an early age, Nelson never felt comfortable in her own skin, never felt like she fit in. She couldn’t pinpoint why, and she couldn’t shake the feeling. “I remember wondering in 2nd grade if all the other kids hated themselves as much as I did,” Nelson said. By age 11, she was suicidal.

She was almost 12 the first time she tasted alcohol. “I remember feeling totally at peace for the first time in my life,” Nelson said. It was also the first time she blacked out. The next day, she couldn’t remember how she’d gotten home, but she did remember that feeling of bliss — and she couldn’t wait to drink again.

From there, Nelson began a freefall. She was smoking pot every day by 13; stealing money for drugs like cocaine, ecstasy, and Adderall by 14; and selling drugs for an abusive dealer by 15. One day a family member noticed her picture in a local paper. She’d been caught on a surveillance camera helping to commit a burglary. A lawyer advised her mom that Nelson had two options: rehab or jail.

In rehab, Nelson heard versions of her own story from fellow patients. For the first time in her life, she felt understood. She enrolled at Santa Barbara City College in 2014, and, after a shaky start, realized she was devouring her textbooks — there was an entire world of knowledge out there for the taking, and she felt so lucky for the opportunity to access it. She aced all her classes and, inspired by the school’s dedication to social justice, applied to USF. She enrolled as a junior psychology major in 2017.

At USF, Nelson continued to excel, earning straight As (with the exception of one B that still irks her) and a place on the dean’s list every semester. She’s worked for the past year as a research assistant in the Department of Psychology and presented her research on foster youth at three separate conferences.

In April, Nelson was informed that she’d been chosen to receive the Dean’s Medal for Excellence in the Arts, the college’s top award. “Anyone who has the opportunity to have a conversation with her will know in 30 seconds why she earned this award,” said psychology professor Saralyn Ruff. “She is an inspiring person, grounded in perspective and humility, and capable of true excellence.”

Nelson recognizes that most people who enter the criminal justice system have very different experiences from hers. “It’s only luck and privilege that kept me out of jail,” she said. “For so many, it’s only the lack of luck and privilege that keeps them in. I’m duty-bound to not leave them behind.”

Contributing to policy change in the criminal justice system is now Nelson’s main objective, and she’s deciding whether her long-term goal should be to pursue a doctorate degree and conduct research that helps change the system, or go for a master’s in social work and serve as a therapist to those caught up in it.

Her short-term goal, however, was very clear: After receiving her diploma on May 18, she hugged her mom. 


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