When he was just a kid watching “Matlock” on TV – seeing Andy Griffith win impossible cases with his quick mind and slow drawl – Roy Dawson decided that’s what he wanted to be – a criminal defense attorney.
It was an ambitious goal that seemed in danger when Dawson dropped out of high school at age 16.
Now, at 33, Dawson’s dream is coming true. He will graduate from the UNC School of Law this weekend and has a job waiting for him as soon as he passes the N.C. bar exam in July. He will join the law firm of Gerrans, Foster & Sargeant in their Morehead City office as an attorney specializing in family law and criminal defense.
“Roy won me over pretty quickly,” said Bill Gerrans. “He told a good story, and lawyers have to be able to tell a good story.”
And what a story Dawson had to tell, full of hard work, sacrifice and a break he got through the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program (C-STEP), which promises talented students from low- to moderate-income backgrounds eventual admission to UNC if they first earn an appropriate associate degree.
Dawson grew up in Alamance County, the son of hard-working parents. His mother managed a restaurant, and his father worked as a roofer and dishwasher. Still there never seemed to be enough money.
To help ends meet, he got a job at a sandwich shop when he was 14. And even though he dropped out of high school to help pay the bills, Dawson still earned a diploma at the same time as his classmates by taking night classes as Alamance Community College. He worked in nearby Swepsonville, at Honda Power Equipment, living on his own.
But then his mother, living alone, contracted severe neuropathy, a condition that started with redness and tingling in her hands and feet that soon affected her ability to use them. For the next several years, he took a series of low-paying jobs and took care of his mom, Delores, even feeding her when she was unable to do it herself. Gradually his mother’s condition stabilized, and she encouraged him to go back to Alamance Community College to get an associate’s degree.
His instructors thought Dawson could go even farther. Calling him a “diamond in the rough,” Maria Baskin was very impressed by the personal memoir he wrote for her expository writing class. She approached Dawson after class to tell him about C-STEP and refer him to an Alamance C-STEP adviser, Perry Hardison.
“C-STEP gives me the opportunity to help students dream, pursue, and achieve bigger dreams than they thought possible,” Hardison said.
Dawson earned his associate’s degree and transferred to Carolina, where he graduated in 2011. Then it was on to UNC School of Law because he still wanted to be criminal defense attorney, partly because of “Matlock,” but also because he read so much about wrongful convictions.
“I want to become part of the system to fix the system,” he said. In addition to classes, he volunteered three years on the Innocence Project, poring over lengthy trial transcripts in search of anything that might grant a prisoner a new trial.
Then, in his last year of law school, he did an eight week externship with the Orange County District Attorney that stretched into a year-long assignment. This time, he was on the side of the prosecution, not the defense, and he was good at it, winning 25 of the 35 cases he tried.
“I don’t recall having a more conscientious, hard-working intern in my eight years of supervising interns,” said Dawson’s boss, Jeff Nieman, Orange County assistant district attorney.
But Dawson still wanted to be a defense attorney. This was just part of his job strategy. “It’s very important to understand how the other side works,” he said.
Dawson’s life changed in other ways during law school. After his first year, he married Dayla Shelton. The two had met in community college and were both C-STEP transfers to Carolina and political science majors. Dayla Dawson is now a loan officer at the State Employees Credit Union in Carrboro. Soon they’ll be leaving married student housing at Baity Hill for a new home at the beach.
Amazing as his story is, Dawson is only one of 440 C-STEP students served since 2006. The graduation rate for students who have entered UNC from 2006 to 2011 is 81 percent, and the program has grown to nine partner campuses: Alamance, Cape Fear, Carteret, Central Carolina, Craven and Sandhills community colleges and Durham, Fayetteville and Wake technical community colleges. C-STEP alumni have careers in healthcare, education, law, business, and public service to name a few.
“C-STEP students are eager to take advantage of opportunities, not only for their personal advancement, but also to give back to others,” said Brian Woodard, C-STEP representative. “Roy is one of those eager students.”