Every year, students drop out of the education system due to life circumstances, parenting challenges, substance abuse, and other obstacles. It takes a special kind of grit for them to return and finish their degree. This is one of four profiles of reentry students who refuse to give up. 

Today, Anthony McKinney’s life is sharply in focus. But at one point, the health and outlook of the mechatronic engineering and German double major was tenuous and murky, at best.

As a teenager, music was the only subject that kept him even remotely engaged in school. Playing upright bass in orchestra, strumming the guitar in jazz band, and honing his voice in choir were his oxygen.

At age 18, McKinney enrolled at Ventura Community College but stopped going after three weeks when his disinterest in academics and the lure of playing live music with his rock band proved too much. The band recorded an album, and after being picked up by a record label, the quartet of teens began touring around the Western United States.

Drugs were easily accessible, and he spent the next four years addicted to opiates. On three occasions, he was arrested and sent to jail, where he experienced heroin withdrawals.

“You wouldn’t wish it upon your worst enemy,” he said. “Unfortunately, I had to do that a couple of times to really learn my lesson.”

But by 2010, at age 22, McKinney was determined to change. He fought to get sober, and February 22, 2021, marked 11 years drug-free.

In 2011, McKinney met and began dating the woman whom he would eventually marry, and started working at Trader Joe’s while returning to community college. Their first son was born in 2014, and he left school to financially support his family.

Back in school in 2015, McKinney remembered a math teacher’s hunch he would excel at engineering and found a home in the subject. He enjoyed the camaraderie in the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement program (MESA), and, though he struggled through prerequisite classes, the challenging curriculum did not deter him.

“I kept telling myself, ‘For once in your life, commit to something. Don’t shy away from it, you can totally do this,’” he said.

Anthony McKinney poses and smiles as he poses in front of a brick wall.
McKinney’s focus helped him rise from the depths of addiction to become a rare multiple reentry student scholarship awardee. He will graduate in May 2021 as a mechatronic engineering and German double major.

McKinney completed his associate’s degree and transferred to Chico State in 2017, right around the time their youngest son was born.

“Starting at Chico State, we had two young kids, I had all of these hard courses ahead of me, and I’m also working 30 hours a week to maintain health care,” he said. “That first year was really tough.”

McKinney applied for and was awarded the Duff Reentry Scholarship three years in a row—as well as an Osher Reentry Scholarship for the 2019–20 academic year.

With the funds, McKinney supplemented his rent, reduced his working hours in order to study, and minimized his student debt. They also helped him study abroad in Germany—a lifelong dream. McKinney progressed toward his degrees at the University of Tübingen and the University of Ulm in 2018–19, strengthened the German he remembered from high school, and immersed himself in a different culture with his wife and children.

“None of Anthony’s accomplishments would have been possible without his deep sense of responsibility, strong motivation, drive, and perseverance,” said Christine Goulding, chair of the Department of International Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. “He believes that anything is possible if you are willing to work hard enough to make it happen.”

As McKinney prepares to finally complete his degrees this spring, a job at a local oil and gas consulting firm awaits this summer. While he is excited about his future, he also remembers the struggles and failures that helped him reach this point—in fact, he holds onto those memories the tightest.

“Remembering what it was like to struggle through anxiety and uncertainty in life is a motivator and reminder of how far I’ve come,” McKinney said. “It’s also a way to reinforce gratitude and to always appreciate what I have.”