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.”
BREAKING THE CYCLE
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.
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.’”
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.”
CHANGE IS POSSIBLE
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.
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.”
A DREAM REALIZED
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.
What you care about can change the world
Scholarships provide crucial financial support to students like Raymond Haug — and make it clear that they belong.