Classroom Perspectives, Mental Health & Well-being

Alumni Success Stories: Inspiring Hope During the Opioid Crisis

Alumni Success Stories: Inspiring Hope During the Opioid Crisis

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, January/February 2024 Issue

By Jeffrey Webb

I am a teacher at DuPont Middle School in southern West Virginia, a region defined by stereotypes and hit hard by America’s opioid epidemic. The course I teach, 8th grade social studies, focuses specifically on our state’s history. It is designed to analyze the past and future of West Virginia, and to instill in students a sense of pride about their home.

However, every year students come into class believing there is little to be proud of when it comes to West Virginia. “Nothing but crackheads,” some of them say, not realizing that heroin and prescription pills—not crack cocaine—are the reason behind our state’s drug problem.

Many of my students grow up thinking the only way to survive West Virginia is to leave, leading to a mass exodus of our youngest and brightest. Meanwhile, others internalize the “nothing but crackheads” stereotype, leading to apathy about school, discipline referrals, truancy, and, in some cases, even drug use. The students come to class feeling hopeless, believing they are trapped by their circumstances and doomed to a life of poverty and addiction. Why bother trying if the future is already decided?

These attitudes may partly explain the state’s low number of college graduates and high number of overdose deaths—“deaths of despair,” as they’re coming to be known. I wanted to challenge this narrative, and I knew that to do so, I had to help my students see past that despair.

The Alumni Survey

Despite the stereotypes, DuPont has several notable alumni, including novelists, sportswriters, and two former NFL players whose pictures hang on the wall of our gymnasium beside other athletes from the school.

Towards the end of the previous school year, our staff played a trivia game that asked us to name the individuals whose photos were on display. This got me thinking about all the other students who have graduated from DuPont over the years. I realized there were probably plenty of alumni with stories that could inspire my students. I just had to find a way to gather those stories.

I thought for a while about how I could reach former students. Then, over the summer, I came up with the idea of using a survey that I proceeded to develop through Google Forms. The survey asked alumni to list the years they attended DuPont, as well as to describe some of their favorite memories from school, what they did after graduation, and what advice they had for today’s students.

Along with the questions, I explained that the replies would be shared with current students, in the hope of helping them to see “beyond the stereotypes used so often to define people from our area and recognize the diversity, perseverance, and successes within our DuPont family.”

The survey link was posted on the school’s Facebook page. I also asked a local alum to share it with his followers on social media, knowing he had a large following that he kept updated about the school. I thought it would be great to get 100 replies. Instead, within two months of posting the survey, nearly 400 alumni had responded!

Among the respondents were teachers, principals, nurses, and soldiers. There were also engineers, realtors, and photographers. Some were business owners who described how they started their own hair salon or floral shop. One alum developed a medical software company and grew it from 7 employees to 150; another founded a non-profit and built a school and community center in Uganda. Two alumni worked for NASA, including one who worked on the launches of all 135 shuttle missions.

Most respondents had graduated sometime in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. The oldest respondent graduated in 1949, making her around 92 years old.

All the alumni wrote about their successes and the things they were proudest of, be that professional accomplishments, accolades they received, or families they raised. While I read through the responses, it became clear that not all of them took the same path.


Some wrote about attending college right out of high school, while others never attended at all. Some waited 10 or 15 years before enrolling in weekend or evening classes, and described the joy they felt upon obtaining a degree; some started on one career path only to make a change to something else.

Many of the alumni wrote about the challenges they faced along the way—growing up in poverty, getting laid off, struggling with mental illness, coping with the death of a loved one. While these were stories of struggle and adversity, they were also stories of people who faced those challenges and persevered.

Success Stories

This project originated due to the prevalence of drug use in our community and, although none of the survey respondents self-disclosed drug use themselves, several did talk about working as counselors and advocates for mental health, including in areas focused on addiction. Still, I thought it was important for students to hear success stories from the recovery community, in order to better combat the stigmatization of drug use.

I decided to invite a guest speaker to our school: Cheryl Laws, the founder and CEO of Pollen8, a local non-profit that helps women in recovery get back on their feet. She shared with our students how trauma can lead to addiction and also explained pathways for treatment. Perhaps the most sobering moment of her talk was when she asked students to raise their hands if they knew someone suffering from addiction. Almost every hand went up.

Lessons to Be Learned

I printed off the responses and placed a different one in each student’s locker before the first day of school. When students opened their lockers at the beginning of the year, they found these stories inside, along with directions to bring them to class that day.

“These are the stories of people who walked these halls before you,” I told my students. “People who maybe had the same locker you have now, who sat in the same seats you are sitting in now. I hope you can learn from their stories and be inspired.”

I divided my students into groups and tasked them with reading and discussing the stories. Each group then shared some interesting details with the entire class. Afterwards, I handed out worksheets to help students analyze their stories, and asked them to write what they learned from the alumni that could be applied to their own lives. Here are some of the things my students said:

  • Cherish your memories and your friendships.
  • Don’t let anyone else tell you who you are.
  • It’s okay to try and to fail. The real failure is in not trying at all.
  • You don’t have to go to college to be successful.
  • You may go through a lot of jobs before you find the one for you.

To give my students a visual reminder of these lessons, I took a globe and punched a tack in every state and country where an alum had lived. Most of the United States is covered with tacks. Many countries in Europe and Asia are also full of them, including some as far away from West Virginia as you can imagine—Nepal, Australia, East Timor. I placed the globe at the front of my classroom, so students could run their hands over it and feel just how far DuPont alumni have gone.

A few months later, as we drew near the end of the first semester and motivation waned, we revisited some of our alumni stories for a boost of morale. I asked my students how these stories impacted the way they viewed the world around them.

“For a while, I thought people from this community didn’t go very far in the future,” one student replied. “My opinion has changed, though, because some people from West Virginia can actually be very successful and hard-working too.”

Another put it even more succinctly: “I learned what’s possible.”

Jeffrey Webb is a writer and an English and social studies teacher from West Virginia.