While serving a six-month sentence for drug possession Tracey Helton Mitchell would often look out through the bars of her cell in the San Francisco County Jail, envisioning a better life.

She'd spent eight years on the streets of San Francisco, much of the time homeless, so trapped in her heroin addiction that she injected the drug into the soles of her feet. There were no working veins left anywhere else.

When the police picked her up, she felt relief more than anything. Maybe jail was the first step to sobriety and, eventually, college. Mitchell saw a future in which she was not only clean and solid in her own recovery but helping others find the same path.

For her, it would need to start with school. "Higher education—if it could ever happen—was always going to be a stepping stone for me," she says.

After her release from jail, Mitchell could hardly wait to start. She soon mapped out a plan to attend nearby San Francisco State University, with the aim of earning her bachelor's and eventually becoming a certified addiction specialist.

She would set goals, stick to them, and walk across the graduation stage.

Since making that resolution in 1998, with the help of her San Francisco State education Mitchell has turned that dream into a daily reality, reaching thousands of people in her work as a health program coordinator.

"I never thought I'd live past the age of 30," she says. "Most of my friends died of AIDS or were murdered. I used to be useless and without a future. Now I'm a powerful voice for change."

 

Project Rebound Opens a Door

Drugs ended Mitchell's first attempt at a college education. When she was ready to return to school those low grades would make admission to San Francisco State difficult at best.

But Mitchell kept searching. The access she needed came through Project Rebound.

Founded at San Francisco State in 1967, Project Rebound helps ex-offenders transition from the criminal justice system to college and provides ongoing support. Over the past decade, 95 percent of Project Rebound students have earned a degree. The organization is now on six other CSU campuses as well.

In Mitchell's case, Project Rebound helped her get into SFSU, even with a poor academic record and having missed the application deadline.

Without their help, Mitchell believes she never would have been admitted.

"For a person trying to rehabilitate their life, the CSU provides access to opportunity and a new way of living," she says. "CSU embraced me and all my details and understood how to give me flexibility as well as empowerment."

In January 1999, Mitchell enrolled in school full-time. She also worked and had to balance both school and a job with the restrictions of living in a halfway house. That often meant cutting study sessions at school short to get home before lockdown.

Through it all, SFSU's flexible class schedules, encouraging professors, and additional advising through Project Rebound made it possible for Mitchell to continue, and complete, her education.

"There was surprisingly a lot of support once you uncovered the avenues to help you get in, then retention programs once you're in to help with books and tutoring. That stuff sounds small, but [San Francisco State] crushed any barriers between me and success."

 

'I Wanted a Career, Not Just a Job'

An SFSU professor once told Mitchell that ex-offenders often make the best students. They know how to focus, he said, and are determined to succeed. Mitchell took that to heart, and before long she had a 3.5 cumulative GPA.

In 2005 she earned her bachelor's degree in business administration. Not yet done with her transformation, she returned to San Francisco State for a master's in public administration, graduating in 2007.

"I wanted a career, not just a job," she says of her decision to come back. "One of the things I liked in particular about the CSU system is that a lot of the things I was taught were directly related to the [work] I was interested in."

Her final master's project, in fact, investigated the effectiveness of services for the homeless in San Francisco. Mitchell's research found that programs are more likely to reach those most in need when case workers have a close connection to that community—a lesson she stresses in her work today.

After earning her master's, Mitchell began working in city and county government to train and manage counselors. "When I got my master's degree it doubled my income," she says. "I learned that my opinion is valuable. It gave me confidence."

In early 2016, Mitchell was hired full-time at the City and County of San Francisco; she now manages more than 20 peer counselors who provide support and services to the growing number of people struggling with addiction. The transformation that in 1999 seemed so far away was complete.

"Thanks to CSU, I became a part of society," she says simply.

 

A Nation in Need

The American Society of Addiction Medicine estimates that nearly two million Americans suffered from pain reliever abuse disorder in 2014, while 586,000 had a substance abuse disorder involving heroin.

Oftentimes, it's people a lot like Mitchell, who started using after getting hooked on prescription painkillers.

"The work I was doing even five years ago was kind of falling on deaf ears, but now people are really listening because the rates of opioid use and abuse have gone up seriously," she says.

Increasingly, Mitchell's stage for talking about addiction has grown even bigger.

The blog she started in 2013 quickly found readers who connected powerfully with her honest portrayals of life in recovery. Its success won Mitchell a book deal for her memoir, "The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin," released in March 2016.

Today, Mitchell is a prominent figure in the addiction community, speaking anywhere from prisons to charity fundraisers. She has appeared on "The Dr. Oz Show," been interviewed on NPR's "Fresh Air," and regularly lectures at the San Francisco State downtown campus.

Mitchell once lived out of a shopping cart. Now, from the front porch of the Daly City home she shares with her husband, Christian, and their three children, she can see the ocean disappear into the horizon.

The end of her block is the city limit of San Francisco, a place where addiction once took over her life and nearly destroyed it, but also where she found a new start.