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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

MATC Student Stories: After incarceration, Troy Muns returns to school with goal to help others

two people in a radio studio
Emily Files
MATC FAST Fund volunteer Ann Burbach and MATC student Troy Muns, pictured in WUWM's Lake Effect studio.

What challenges are today’s college students facing, and what motivates them to earn their degree?

Inspired by the long-running StoryCorps series, WUWM invited Milwaukee Area Technical College students to talk about these questions with someone who has helped them on their education journeys.

First up is Troy Muns, who is going back to school at age 54 to become a substance abuse counselor. Muns was released from prison in January after serving time for robbery. He says he’s spent a total of about 30 years behind bars and now wants to choose a different path.

He spoke with Ann Burbach, a former college counselor and current volunteer at the MATC faculty-run FAST Fund. The FAST Fund helps students, including Muns, with emergency financial aid so they can stay enrolled in school.

Their conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length, is transcribed below.

Ann Burbach: What made you decide to enroll at MATC?

Troy Muns: Well, as we all know, being natives from Milwaukee, you have the city police department, you have the Milwaukee County jail and you have the Milwaukee County Courthouse and you have the MSDF, which is Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility, which is a prison located downtown. And we also have the morgue. And I think those options are not good options for me. So I chose MATC.

That was one of the motivating factors that helped me make this decision, as well as losing my mother while I was in prison, helped me to start to make changes in my life. To be honest, I always thought that I wouldn't make it — I wasn't worth going to school. But the closer I got to MATC, it was like the more courage built up for me to walk in them doors.

Burbach: So what was it like to be in college? I don't know anything really about your educational background.

Muns: Well, I'll be honest. My interest in school started going down at the age of 13 because I was in the juvenile system and I was just in a bad situation and I didn't have interest in school anymore. And at the age of 15, I dropped out of high school at 10th grade, and I lost interest. I obtained my HSED (High School Equivalency Diploma) in prison in ‘91. But after that I lost interest in, you know, any type of education.

But this time in my incarceration, when I lost my mother, you know, and I was seeing a therapist and, and she says, you need to read this book. And I started reading a self-help book and it was so impactful, it was like reading the autobiography of my life. You know, there was other people who went through what I went through and they were showing you a way out.

Like I say, I'm 54 years old and I was 53 at the time. And when I walked in the [MATC] doors it was intimidating because there were no older people there, you know? I got through it though. Somehow I got through that experience.

You know, I think my determination — the same determination I had when I was in my addiction to get that drug, I utilize that determination to get my education, pretty much. I just changed the perspective, my narrative in life. And, you know, and that's not an easy transition because, you know, being a certain way for 35 years of your life and then automatically turning it upside down on his head — it's very — I don't have a word for it. I don't have a word for it. I just know it's not an easy task.

MATC student Troy Muns speaks with FAST Fund volunteer Ann Burbach about his education experience.

Burbach: Have you had other challenges that you've faced being at MATC?

Muns: Oh, of course. I've faced many challenges, what I call adversity. My first day, in English class, my teacher, she's 53 and she says, well, I'm probably the oldest in a classroom. And I says, wait a minute, no you're not. I'm 53, too, so you're not alone.

But I have to speak on my English teacher. She was the first person who told me: you have the type of energy that anything you do, you're going to succeed. And that kind of pierced my heart because pretty much my whole life, no one ever told me that.

So when you go to MATC, there's no telling what you're going to receive. You just got to go. You just got to get in there.

Burbach: And you got to ask.

Muns: And you got to ask.

Burbach: Because I often say to students, I can't tell by looking at you —

Muns: What you need.

Burbach: What you need, what help you need, if you have questions, you need to let me know

Muns: Yeah, well, here's the thing. A lot of people, even myself, that are prideful, don't like to ask for help. Take a chance. Ask for help.

Burbach: And I was just going to say, based on what you said, I think you chose the right career. So in reaching out for help, you are also helping people or will be.

Muns: So I originally went to MATC to be a nutrition and dietetic technician. But something tugged at my heart. The Lord touched my heart. He says, 'That's not what I want, that's not what I want for you, you didn’t go through 30-something-years of your life to be a nutritionist.' And I says, 'What?'

So what I did is I changed my major into AODA (alcohol and other drug abuse) substance abuse counselor and human services. So I'm going to turn my pain into purpose and to help somebody else get out of addiction and whoever struggles with mental health.

That mental health piece is key because I've learned that you can't deal with mental health by yourself. I was ashamed that I had mental health issues. And that prevented me from getting help.

You know, and mental health is a major thing that's going on today in our country that needs to be addressed. And services need to be applied so people can get help instead of incarcerating them. You know, I mean, there's a lot of incarcerated people in prison who have mental health issues.

So my addiction was a symptom of my mental health because I had, [when I was] nine my mom married a guy who was an alcoholic and very abusive. And he tried to — he did abuse her for many years, as well as myself. So I stopped feeling feelings at the age of nine. I didn't know what it felt to be loved. I didn't know what it felt to be wanted or needed. And I was on my own. But with all of that, saying that I'm sitting here today, I'm not a victim. I'm a survivor.

And then a person I met who's a therapist. She's a friend now. She says you're not surviving, you’re thriving. That upped the ante. Because sometimes in life we're just holding on to surviving. And that's not enough. You know, I got to continue to push myself to thrive in life because that's what it's about. Enjoying life and being happy.

Our series featuring personal stories from MATC students will air each Thursday in May. The series was produced with help from the MATC FAST Fund.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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