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But he summoned the courage and inner strength to earn a GED behind bars, and went on to earn a law degree from Yale University after released from prison.
Now an acclaimed poet, teacher and memoirist, Betts had a simple yet powerful message for Merrimack students at Thursday’s academic convocation, for which he served as keynote speaker.
“I think it’s a huge responsibility to get an education,” he said.
And in the embrace of a supportive and caring academic community like Merrimack’s, Betts added, there is really no excuse not to succeed.
“The difference between prison and college is that there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, here who are dedicated to being present in your life, and their intention is to help you become who you want to be,” he said.
Taylor Robertson ’21, an exercise science major from Hanson, Massachusetts, said Betts’ story of overcoming his mistakes in life was inspiring.
“It gives you the view you can do anything, no matter what your past was,” she said.
Alex Juliano ’18, a civil engineering major from Lynnfield, Massachusetts, added that Betts’s message would serve as motivation to accomplish his goals and contribute to society.
“I’m ready to grab the world by the horns, represent Merrimack as best I can and use my education,” Juliano said.
Earlier in the day, more than 20 students joined in an intimate conversation with Betts in The Writers House to talk about his rise from convict to acclaimed author, poet, lawyer and social-justice advocate.
“Every mistake I’ve made has given me the opportunity to do something over,” he said. “Every day you have to operate like you have nothing to lose.”