Harpeth Hall’s 2021 Spirit of Service Award recipient, Julie Doochin '90, visited campus to speak to students about her inspirational work with the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative and Dismas House.
At the end of one of those presentations, a young man named David — who looked no more than high school age — approached her.
“I want to apply to the program,” he said. “But I have too much time.”
“How much time?” she asked.
“Two hundred and forty years,” was his reply.
As Julie drove home that night, she cried thinking of the lost potential of human life. Julie knew there were thousands of others like David in Tennessee prisons. The United States has 5% of the world population yet 25% of the world’s prison population. Nationwide, 2.3 million individuals are incarcerated.
Julie felt called to help those individuals. As a little girl, she and her dad would drive by the original Tennessee State Prison on his way to work and she would think about the people behind the stone walls and barbed wire.
“Behind those walls were forgotten, hidden human beings that society didn’t want to look at,” she said. “... I wanted to bring the light of awareness and hope to that dark place.”
She has done that and more. On Friday, Harpeth Hall recognized Julie with the 2021 Alumna Spirit of Service Award for her life-changing work as founder and former executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative (THEI) and as the current vice president of programs at Dismas House-Nashville.
THEI is a non-profit organization that brings college degree programs to prisons in Tennessee and prepares individuals for successful re-entry. Dismas House fosters community awareness and understanding of challenges and obstacles formerly incarcerated men face upon reentry by providing a system for personal transformation and growth as they transition back into society.
“Learning about Dr. Doochin and her work with incarcerated males truly reminded me of the power of education,” Harpeth Hall senior Taylor Kappelman said. “I was inspired by her message that a fulfilling education should not be the privilege of a select few, rather it should be the right for all.”
Julie believes her Harpeth Hall education served as inspiration for her path. She developed a love of literature and poetry from Dr. Derah Myers’ English class and a passion for the past from Dr. Art Echerd, her European history teacher at Harpeth Hall.
“Not only did he inspire my love of history and subsequent decision to become a history educator initially,” she said, “but I also took from him the belief that you must have a deep understanding and comprehensive knowledge relative to your chosen area of expertise, which would serve me well later.”
After she graduated high school, Julie chose to advance her own education while also pursuing careers that allowed her to educate others. “At Harpeth Hall,” she said. “I learned the value of a liberal arts education. I came to believe that this shouldn’t be the privilege of a few that this should be the right of all.”
She began her professional life as a high school teacher, but she was drawn to what was hidden beneath the surface — what was behind the prison walls. Julie didn’t know exactly where that would take her.
“I am sure you have a cause you care about but you have no idea how to be part of the solution,” she told the Harpeth Hall students gathered in the Frances Bond Davis Theatre. “Like a puzzle that doesn’t fit together yet.”
She found her answer one night in 2009 when she was channel surfacing and caught 60 Minutes segment about the Bard Prison Initiative, a program that provides college education to people in prison. She knew then she wanted to start a similar program in Tennessee.
“I’ve always believed no matter who you are, what you have done where you reside that human beings deserve the opportunity to have a meaningful life,” she said. “That was the final piece of my puzzle.”
Julie founded Tennessee Higher Education Initiative not long after. Since its inception, the organization has enrolled hundreds of students who have benefited from the program. To date, 56 college degrees have been awarded through THEI’s college partners and the number will grow to 75 by late 2021. Julie proudly notes, “not one person who has earned a degree has returned to prison.”
Those results drive Julie. It’s what moved her to expand the program to include inmates like David, who may never be released. In 2019, David received his college degree in business administration from Nashville State.
"Ms. Doochin’s lifelong dedication to teaching and her willingness to speak for those without a voice sets a powerful example for the Harpeth Hall community and for all around her." Harpeth Hall senior Clara Murff said. "We are so lucky to have gotten to hear her speak."
On her many visits to the state prison in Hickman County, she would look over and see him in solitude devouring the teachings of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and other existentialists.
She could also see a slight grin on his face.