Never Too Late

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Chris Oliver was given a choice: prison or the Army. He chose the latter, then went to college, setting an example for his siblings. "This is what thrills me...that it's never too late."

(Image above: Chris Oliver at the 2018 Veteran & Military Commencement celebration.)

The judge offered Chris Oliver a choice. “He said, ‘Mr. Oliver, you’re looking at 10 years for distribution with intent to sell, or you can join the Army.’”

Born in Brooklyn, Oliver describes his early childhood as relatively carefree. “I have fond memories of going to the park, flying kites, stuff like that,” he said. “Bills were being paid. Mom was happy. Dad was happy.”

Things started to change for Oliver around age 13. That’s when he was kicked out of his parent’s house. Oliver, the third of five children, moved in with his older brother. “He was 18, almost 19,” said Oliver. “He raised me.”

The brothers shared space in a cramped government-run apartment. Oliver’s brother sold drugs and belonged to a gang. “He told me, ‘Look, this is how we’re going to survive. This is the streets, and this is how you’re going to make money and be able to put clothes on your back and food in your stomach.’”

Oliver learned how to make crack cocaine. He joined a gang. “As a kid you’re looking for structure and for guidance,” said Oliver. “I figured that what my brother was telling me and teaching me about how to live was the right way. Society labels it as wrong, but when you’re in the mix of it and this is all you’re around it becomes your norm.”

***

The 18-year-old Oliver had a decision to make. “I could spend the next 10 years in prison, or I could be a free man receiving a paycheck,” he said. “It was a no-brainer.”

Chris Oliver with his oldest son.Oliver chose the Army, but not just for himself. He had twin one-year-old boys at home.

The transition to Army live proved difficult. Back in Brooklyn, Oliver had his own “set” that he looked after. “I was the one giving out orders, and to go from that to being in a place where people are telling you what to do and when to do it was a culture shock,” he said.

The teenager almost didn’t make it. Oliver regularly butted heads with his drill sergeant. One day the drill sergeant pulled Oliver aside. “He reminded me that if I get kicked out of here then I’d go to jail,” said Oliver. “He told me to think about my kids and what I needed to do for them.”

The next few years were a constant game of tug-of-war. Oliver’s enlistment took him to different parts of the world. These places had their own history that didn’t include Oliver. Here he could focus on making a new life free from distraction. “I’d still go back to New York when I was on leave,” he said. “I still hung around some of the same knuckleheads. I think it took at least four years of being in the military for me to get the streets out of my system.”

All told, Oliver spent 14 years in the Army. During that time, he served a total of three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He may have stayed in if not for an injury he sustained while in Iraq. “I was medically retired,” he said.

***

Oliver ended his military career while stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). His injury hampered his ability to work. So, Oliver decided to take advantage of his military benefits and enroll at Tacoma Community College (TCC) where he completed an associate’s degree before transferring to UW Tacoma. “I’m a kid with a GED,” he said. “That was my highest form of education and I never thought I could even accomplish an associate’s degree, so when I did that I started to think about what else I could achieve.”

Oliver majored in Ethnic, Gender and Labor Studies at UW Tacoma. “When I first got here, I felt so intimidated,” he said. “But then people took me underneath their wing and helped me grow and excel.” Those people included Professor Sushil Oswal, Associate Professors Michelle Montgomery, Danica Miller, Deirdre Raynor and Riki Thompson as well as Assistant Teaching Professor Tony Perone.

This group and others encouraged Oliver to continue his education. Following graduation, Oliver started in the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies graduate program at UW Tacoma. During his time in graduate school Oliver developed a kinship with Perone. “I call him my dance partner and I couldn’t have asked for a better one,” he said.

Oliver and Perone are in the process of developing a program that will help offer an alternative to gangs for young people in Tacoma. “We want to provide an outlet for these kids to find opportunities and resources to help them excel,” said Oliver.

This is a more formalized version of the work Oliver had already been doing. “I know a lot of gang members in this area and I’ll talk to them and do my best to help them and guide them in a different direction,” he said.

***

Oliver is almost done with his master’s degree. He graduates in December and plans to pursue a doctorate in educational leadership. This next part of Oliver’s academic journey may prove to be a little bit more challenging. The 40-year-old now has four kids, two of which are under the age of two.

Sometimes life comes full circle. On the surface, Oliver chose the Army. Digging deeper, he chose something else, even if he could not quite name it at the time. He wanted something different for himself, for his children and for his larger family. “My younger brother and my younger sister saw where I was going and decided to go to college,” said Oliver. “This is what thrills me, what excites me because it shows their children, my nephews and nieces that it’s never too late.”

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Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / December 11, 2020
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu