Achieving Liftoff

Raymond Haug was caught in a cycle of addiction, homelessness and prison. With the help of scholarships and a campus community, he transformed his life and found a calling in mechanical engineering.

The last time Raymond Haug got out of prison, in June 2016, he had no friends or family waiting to pick him up. He had no new clothes to change into. All he had was his state-issued prison sweatsuit, a brown paper bag with his housing voucher paperwork, and a faint glimmer of hope.

A prison guard dropped him off at Everett Station, where he sat on a bench out front and reflected on his years of homelessness, addiction, crime and incarceration. Fighting intense shame and doubt, he considered the monumental goals ahead of him: Stay sober and get an education.

Then he stood up and walked to Everett Community College (EvCC) to apply for admission.


Seven years later, Haug has transformed his life. He recently earned his University of Washington undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, completing two SpaceX internships along the way. He’s now a transportation engineer with the Washington State Department of Transportation, and he’ll begin the UW master’s program in mechanical engineering in fall 2024. His wife, Althea, just completed her master’s in teaching at the UW. They have two young children.

Respected by his professors and peers, Haug earned several scholarships that made his education possible at EvCC and the UW. “The scholarships have meant more than anything to me,” says Haug. “The awards make me feel like I do belong in school. It’s helped me live the life I’m living now.”

Ray in machine shop wearing safety glasses

Raymond Haug, ’23, in the Mechanical Engineering machine shop

But “Old Ray,” as he calls his past self, will always be part of him. Because of his prison time, Haug has never been approved for an apartment rental and was repeatedly turned down for jobs. When he used a computer at the EvCC welcome center to apply, he half-expected security to escort him out.

“Coming from the world I did, recovering from addiction,” he says, “my brain still tells me I don’t deserve the life I’m living.”

“The scholarships have meant more than anything to me,” says Haug. “The awards make me feel like I do belong in school. It’s helped me live the life I’m living now.”
ray haug portrait

Haug shares his story to remind others that “change is possible.”

When he started college, Haug felt he had to hide his past. But when an EvCC professor, seeing his talent for math and chemistry, urged him to apply for a job in the tutoring center, Haug had to sit down with human resources and go over every detail of his history of addiction and crime. It was painful and nerve-wracking, but he impressed HR with his commitment to recovery and academic success. He got the job — and saw the value of sharing his story.


When Haug was 5, his father died of a drug overdose. As a teen, Haug was in and out of juvenile detention. At 15, he was sleeping under Montlake Bridge. He held up cardboard signs on the street corner and worked odd jobs. But as his heroin addiction progressed, he turned to crime, receiving the first of several robbery sentences when he was 18. So began a brutal cycle of incarceration, release, relapse and re-incarceration.

Years later, when he found himself locked in the same solitary-confinement cell during two consecutive sentences, something clicked: “I decided that if I was going to get it together, I had to do so in prison — not when I was back out on the street.”

In a drug treatment course in prison, Haug learned of the Post-Prison Education Program (PPEP), a nonprofit that helps connect the formerly incarcerated with postsecondary education. A 2018 study funded by the Department of Justice found that people who participated in correctional education were 48% less likely to return to prison within three years. But it wasn’t just that for Haug. It was the prospect of reinventing himself, discovering talents he didn’t know he had.

PPEP helped him get his college financial aid application in order. Then he was released.

Motorcycle parked in front of a fence

Haug’s custom-built motorcycle


Before long, Haug was living in sober housing, volunteering with Narcotics Anonymous (NA), enrolled at EvCC and working as a tutor. He also taught himself how to fix up cars and motorcycles. One day in chemistry class, Haug showed his professor photos of a motorcycle he was building — a fully custom hardtail bobber.

“He was like, ‘Why aren’t you an engineering major?’” remembers Haug. “But I had never heard of engineering. I didn’t know what it was.” As Haug discovered all that engineering entailed, he was excited to make it his major.

The more Haug’s peers and professors recognized his talents, the more he opened up. He began applying for and receiving scholarships, sharing a little more of his background each time. Then he told his story as a speaker at a scholarship breakfast. He remembers how it felt, with a supportive audience listening to his every word.

“I was crying the whole time,” says Haug. “I was so grateful to be respected by my peers who weren’t from prison. The impact they had — all they had to do was tell me, ‘You can.’”

Ray talking with other students in machine shop

“I practically lived in the machine shop,” says Haug, who quickly got to work making the most of his student experience at the UW.


As Haug set his sights on transferring to a university, he was awarded the Martin Family Foundation Achievement Scholarship, for students at Washington state community colleges who hope to complete their bachelor’s degree at the UW. Then he got the good news that he’d been accepted to the UW.

Haug was drawn to the University’s strong mechanical engineering program and the UW Formula Motorsports Team, a student organization that designs, builds and competes with electric formula-style race cars. He hoped that would be his launchpad to an internship that could set the course for his career.

Haug’s first year at the UW was in the midst of the pandemic, and while his classes were online, he “practically lived in the machine shop” with other students on the Formula team.

“As a transfer student, you have half as much time to start a relationship with your university,” says Haug. “The Formula team paid huge dividends and made me feel like a part of the school.”

It also paid dividends in experience, helping him land two internships with spacecraft company SpaceX, where he worked on the pressurized ground systems team. Haug brought his problem-solving to the forefront there, figuring out coding problems and helping install piping and control panels. “My background fits into that divergent thinking they want to grow,” he says. “I’m a good fit because I’ve had to be so adaptive my whole life.”

“Coming from the world I did, recovering from addiction, my brain still tells me I don’t deserve the life I’m living.”


Haug was thrilled to help build ships that go to space, but he’s equally committed to making a difference on Earth, helping others find their way to a brighter future.

Haug with friend positioned in front of a computer screen

Haug teaching his friend Wade how to use a mouth-operated computer mouse

One example: Haug engineered a mouth-operated computer mouse for his friend Wade, who’s paralyzed from the neck down from a gunshot wound. When Haug brought him the mouse, he stayed to help Wade apply to community college. Haug also plans to build Wade a mouth-operated spray-paint attachment so he can make his own art.

Haug has also enjoyed volunteering with NA and mentoring youth involved with the criminal justice system. Last October he spoke at a conference for STEM-OPS, which works to include STEM learning opportunities in prison. “It’s my responsibility to help,” he says. “What’s the point of making it if I don’t help the person behind me?”

That’s why he continues to share his story. “All that I did in the past and all I’m doing now — they’re not exclusive of one another,” says Haug. “So I hope that when you see someone holding a sign on 45th Street, you know that that was me, and you’ll remember that change is possible.”

Ray in cap and gown walking on stage, with his two children, for the UW graduation

Haug and his family take the stage at his 2023 graduation. Photo by Matt Hagen.


On June 11, Raymond Haug — holding his three-year-old daughter’s hand and his 19-month-old son in the other arm — strode across the stage to loud applause at his mechanical engineering program’s graduation. His daughter reached out and accepted his diploma for him. It was the first time Haug had ever walked in a graduation.

“My world was so small when I started going to college,” Haug says. “I wouldn’t have been able to predict where I’d be right now. I didn’t think it was in the cards for me.”

As a new engineer, Haug is grateful for everything he learned at the UW. His advice: Show up and stay open to possibility. “You don’t have to know if you’re going to be a lawyer, a doctor, an economist,” he says. “Just sign up for some classes. I promise your world will expand.”

Story by Jamie Swenson. Originally published September 2023.

Photo by Julia Barker.

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