December 12, 2011

Commencement marks student’s transition from dark past to bright future

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Chernell Bizzell’s first night spent in an old, abandoned yellow-brick house was a reality check.

“I had a hard time sleeping,” says the Birmingham native as she stares into the distance. “It was drafty and dark, like my life.”

At 16, she had hit rock bottom. Her addiction to crack-cocaine had her living in squalor among addicts who were 30 years in, eating out of dumpsters and wandering the streets during the day.

Yet even in her drug-induced haze, her dream for a better life never dulled.

“I was high as a kite but would say, ‘I am not going to be here forever.’” She told herself, “If I can look toward the mountain, there is no reason why I cannot get there. I don’t have to settle for the rubble on the ground.”

Today, the 35-year-old readies herself for Dec. 17, 2011, the day she tops the summit. She will receive a bachelor’s degree in African-American Studies from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She plans either to go to law school or get an advanced degree in counseling.

“An education seems to have given Chernell the knowledge and ability to be confident in herself,” says George Munchus, Ph.D., interim director of African-American Studies in UAB’s College of Arts and Sciences. “She has a dogged determination.”

“The whole African-American Studies program breathed life into me,” Bizzell says of being inspired by its lessons. “If African-Americans can deal with slavery and racism and still triumph, then there is no limit for me.”

Bizzell’s dance with drugs started at a young age. Growing up in a home with an alcoholic mother and an abusive father, she searched for an escape, she says.

She dropped out of school in the eighth grade and started dating a 21-year-old drug dealer. By age 13, she was living on her own.

“The money was flowing,” she says. “We could drink all night and just have fun.”

Then, a girl introduced her to “primos,” a mix of tobacco and crack cocaine wrapped in cigarette paper.

“It took away all the pain.”

That began her addiction; by 15, it was full-blown.

By the time Bizzell was 21, she had given birth to seven children, and all of them were taken from her custody. She became the person that the old women in the neighborhood warned their grandchildren about, she says. “They would say, ‘You don’t want to be like Chernell.”

Then, her mother died in 1998.

“It was a devastating blow when I saw her in that casket,” Bizzell says. “My aunt said, ‘Your mama is dead; now what are you going do?’”

The question hit her like a ton of bricks.

“I said, ‘Yeah, what are you gonna do?’ I made a decision to get out of there and get off of drugs at all costs.”

Bizzell got on a Greyhound bus and went to Oakland, Calif. She enrolled in the Berkley Adult School and got her GED.

Then, a GED wasn’t enough, she says. She had always been fascinated with African-American history and researched online to find an undergraduate program.

“A link took me to UAB,” she says. She applied with no expectation that she would be accepted.

“The next thing you know, I was sitting in freshman orientation,” says Bizzell with a smile. She was admitted conditionally. A boatload of student loans and some vocational rehabilitation funding helped her pay college costs.

Now, Bizzell is married and working to repair the relationships with her children. When she’s not in class or studying, she works in the African-American Studies office and as an adolescent HIV researcher. She also partnered with her pastor to start a GED study program that meets twice a week at her church.

“UAB definitely has done a lot of things for me,” she says. “I have learned to see the bigger picture and get an understanding of what happened to me in academic terms, psychologically and sociologically.”

She hopes to use the knowledge she gained from UAB to work with others to create remedies for people suffering with drug addiction and also help those lost among the red tape within the judicial system.

“If I put my mind to it and put in the work, I can do it,” she says.

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