By ERIN SNELGROVE
ELLENSBURG -- Nate Aid recalls being the poor kid with mismatched clothes and hand-me-down shoes in elementary school.
In middle school, the popular kids called him "white trash" and taunted him for being poor, he said.
Tired of the name calling, Aid dropped out of high school and joined a gang.
"I felt accepted by them," said Aid, a 25-year-old Ellensburg native. "I committed crimes to continue feeling the love they showed me."
Starting as a teen, Aid was repeatedly arrested for assault, burglary and unlawful imprisonment and spent much of his life in jail.
"Now I'm a convicted felon and I have limited options," said Aid. "I can't vote. I have to pay off restitution. I'll never have gun rights or be able to teach."
The odds would appear to be against Aid making a meaningful effort to improve his life. But that was before he was approved for Central Washington University's STAR program.
"I cried after I was accepted. I called everybody," said Aid, now a freshman. (The acceptance letter) "was like saying I had a chance. I couldn't believe it."
Aid was first picked up by police at age 11 for skipping school. But instead of scaring him straight, getting locked up became familiar. So did gang life. He began hanging out with gang members when he was 14, and he was rushed at 17.
"I got taken to the ground and beaten up," Aid said. "Then we all smoked a joint to celebrate my addition to the family."
Aid spent his days partying, drinking and doing drugs. Fighting became routine. Once he was involved in a stabbing on Thanksgiving day.
"You are mentally, spiritually and emotionally hollow," Aid said. "It's gang life. That's how we take things. If someone fights or gets stabbed, or there's a shooting, it comes with the territory."
"Everyone around me was in prison or dying," he said. "I didn't want to live that way, but I didn't know how to change it. I felt hopeless."
He wasn't there when his daughter was born, or his son. He missed their first steps, their first words. After a year in jail reflecting on life, he realized he didn't want to miss any more.
"They are an extension of my soul," he said. "That's pretty powerful. It was my kids that made me realize I'd be missing out on a lot."
Aid quit the gang, quit drinking and stopped doing drugs. Except for one slip, he said he hasn't used meth in more than three years. Alcohol was tougher to give up, but he's been sober for a year.
"It's tough," he said. "Sometimes I miss the good parts of my life, how I had power, money and respect. Now I'm just another face in the crowd."
For more than three years, Aid made good money as a construction worker. But when the economy tanked, so did his paychecks.
He began studying and earned his GED last February. That, however, would not normally be enough to be accepted at a university. But he reached out to Carolyn Thurston, director of Central's STAR program, who he had met several years earlier through a mutual friend.
When she first met Aid, Thurston said he looked and acted like a gang member. Still, she sensed there was something special about him.
"My gut told me he would make it," said Thurston, who has spent her career working with high-risk populations. "He didn't present himself as intellectual, but I knew he was smart."
When he called her about going back to school last winter, Thurston had two questions for him -- "How long have you been clean, and do you intend to stay clean and sober?"
Aid assured Thurston of his sobriety, and in return, she promised to help. But that help would cease if he started using again.
"I see massive potential, but I know he cannot reach his potential if he doesn't stay clean and sober," Thurston said. "This guy has code, integrity and very strong will. ... I think Nate has something remarkable he can share with young men, and it will be a long time before he can recognize that."
Although excited about going back to school, Aid said the transition has been challenging. He's felt out of place, was behind other students and had trouble retaining information.
"Sometimes, I'd sit in class and the math teacher would say, 'everybody knows this.' I didn't know it. ... I felt dumb," he said. "I have to remind myself that I'm not stupid, I just never learned it."
In many ways, his experiences are typical of STAR participants, whose backgrounds leave them feeling isolated from other students. That's what STAR works to address.
For Aid, Thurston and Program Coordinator Sam Blazina got him a math tutor and are always there when he needs to talk or wants their advice.
To pass his classes, Aid said he has to study several hours a day. He lives off financial aid and hopes to major in construction management. He also aspires to improve his credit, own his own home and be a positive role model for his 3-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter.
"The STAR program seems kind of selfless," he said. "If a student starts to slip, they are right there like white on rice."