Ruben Exum is proving the best things are worth the wait.
After 11 years, Ruben Exum finally graduated with his bachelor's degree.
Exum is an alumnus of Texas Tech University at Fredericksburg, one of nine regional sites the university has in Texas. Exum graduated with a Bachelor of Art in University Studies with concentrations in sociology, psychology and addiction studies.
“I've worked in the mental health field for over a decade now,” Exum said. “I got to a point in my career when I knew that to provide people the help I wanted to give them, I needed a degree.”
But that's not where Exum's career started. In fact, his path to earning his undergraduate degree has been anything but typical.
“I grew up a military brat,” Exum said. “My dad served in the Air Force for 25 years, so I moved around a lot. I spent a lot of time particularly in Asia. We lived in Okinawa, Philippines and South Korea for good chunks of time.”
Around the time Exum was starting high school, he moved back to Texas to live with his mom.
“I was bored in high school,” Exum said. “The Department of Defense's (DOD) school curriculum was much more rigorous, so I found myself ahead of my peers when I returned from overseas.”
So bored in fact, that he didn't attend much school and didn't bother going to his high school commencement ceremony, a decision he deeply regretted later.
Maybe it was his boredom or his sense of wanderlust, but Exum didn't find college to be interesting either. He attempted to go to college but after coming home for his grandmother's funeral, he didn't go back. From there, he worked odd jobs and explored professions that felt closer to home.
“After living with a parent in the Air Force, I was really interested in aircraft production and aviation,” Exum said.
Exum found jobs here and there working on aircraft production and inspection. He was working toward a Federal Aviation Administration (FFA) certification in 2008 when the recession hit.
“Suddenly that job was not a steady source of income,” Exum said. “I was raising three kids as a single father, so I needed job security.”
Exum found work at the Kerrville State Hospital doing laundry, which according to him, was the worst job he'd ever had.
“Laundry in hospitals is probably one of the nastiest things you can imagine,” Exum said. You're handling sheets with all kinds of bodily fluids and infections.”
At rock bottom, Exum came across a more appealing opportunity.
“In addition to the hospital itself, we were contracted to do laundry for other state facilities, one being the Hill Country Mental Health & Developmental Disabilities Center (MHDD).”
Exum quickly became interested in the work the MHDD did and knew it would be a step up from his current situation. A friend of his was working in the crisis stabilization unit at the time and told him about a job opening.
“I immediately applied for the job,” Exum said. “However, I had no idea what I was getting into.”
As would be expected in any crisis unit, Exum served individuals who were over-dosed, suicidal or struggling with severe mental health issues. Oftentimes, all three at once.
“Those five years were full of character development for me,” Exum said. “I matured in how I viewed individuals who struggled with mental health disabilities or addiction. Those diseases do not discriminate. They affect people no matter their socioeconomic status, race, gender, sexuality or religion. I saw people from all walks of life.”
While incredibly different from previous jobs Exum had held, he quickly became passionate about his work in a way he'd never felt before.
“While the job was taxing, it also was incredibly rewarding,” Exum said. “I was someone's first point of contact when they came into our facility. Getting to see people come in at their worst and leave weeks later doing better was inspiring. It completely changed the way I saw people.”
One night when Exum was out to dinner with his son, an individual who had come through the crisis unit approached him.
“I was taken off-guard at first,” Exum said. “Usually, a patient would protect their anonymity. But this guy was excited to see me. He told me how well he was doing and caught me up on his life.
“Before he left, he looked at my son James and said, ‘Your dad saved my life.'”
Realizing he had found his calling, Exum started dreaming of going back to college.
“After five years in the crisis stabilization unit, I was looking for a change,” Exum said. “I was feeling burnt out from the continual state of crisis and wanted to make a career shift to work with individuals further down the road to recovery.”
Exum had spent years working with people at the beginning of their journey, but he realized he wanted to help people achieve full recovery.
“However, when I started looking at those kinds of jobs, I realized I would have to have a college degree,” Exum said.
So, in 2011 he went back to school. Starting at Northwest Vista College, Exum began to work through his basic credits.
“It took me seven years to finish my associate degree,” Exum said. “That's hard to believe. But I could never take more than six hours at a time because I was working full-time and was also a full-time dad.”
Staying the course however, Exum earned his associate degree in 2018 and then set his sights on finding a four-year university.
“I knew when I got to that point, I wanted to transfer to a great school,” Exum said. “I told myself if I was going to put myself through this ordeal, I was going to make it worth it and pick a major university.”
Originally considering The University of Texas at San Antonio, Exum figured he'd make the 30-minute drive from Kerrville into San Antonio a few evenings a week. But while scrolling through Facebook one evening, he noticed an advertisement for a Texas Tech campus even closer.
“I saw that Texas Tech had a regional site in Fredericksburg which was closer to my home,” Exum said. “Not only that, but the bulk of the work could be done online.”
The next day, Exum walked onto the Texas Tech at Fredericksburg campus and found an admissions counselor who guided him through the process and explained the programs the campus offered.
“I really liked that I could get a University Studies degree and have three concentrations instead of having to pick just one,” Exum said.
Still fairly new to the mental health care field, this degree path would afford him broad exposure to many areas of study, creating even more opportunities down the road. So in the fall of 2018, Exum became a Red Raider.
“One of the things I enjoyed most about my time at Texas Tech was the collaborative nature of my courses,” Exum said. “Human sciences are all about, well, humans. So going through courses where I operated on teams and worked alongside colleagues was an invaluable experience.”
Exum said he expects these skills to serve him well when he works with patients to develop treatment plans.
“Putting together those plans requires you to see the big picture,” he said. “And that requires asking a lot of questions and getting a lot of input.”
But more than anything, Texas Tech gave him confidence.
“It's amazing to finally have the training to do what I feel called to do,” Exum said “It's hard to believe graduation is here, because this has been over a decade in the making. But it finally came together, and that's really cool to see.”
Since Exum missed his high school commencement, he wasn't about to make that mistake again.
“I'll be walking on Friday in the ceremony in Lubbock,” Exum said. “My dad is going to make the trip with me too. It only took 30 years, but he'll finally get to see me walk.”