A chance encounter changed David Carter's life.
The 67-year-old who had spent most of his life battling homelessness and addiction was panhandling on his usual corner near the University of Texas campus last fall when a student struck up a conversation.
Carter decided to share an interesting tidbit — that he too was once a UT undergrad with dreams of being an artist and a writer.
"I approached it with skepticism," said the student, Ryan Chandler. "I reached out to the university, and they said there was a guy named David Carter who was registered back in the '70s. I realized he was serious about this, that he was telling the truth."
Carter wasn't someone who necessarily believed in second chances. But with Chandler's help, he navigated the readmission process and in June once again began classes as a registered student, embarking on a new journey with hopes of attaining a degree that's been nearly 50 years in the making.
"It's literally the opportunity of a lifetime," Carter said. "This is potentially the best thing that's ever happened to me."
Falling on hard times
Carter grew up in Austin and attended UT for several years in the early 1970s, studying studio art. By the third year, Carter said he grew tired of living at home with his parents and wanted to travel and see the world. He left college and took a cross-country trip, hopping trains, sleeping under bridges and going wherever the wind took him.
"I didn't have any kind of direction or reason," he said. "I was just doing things at random."
Eventually, he found himself homeless and battling addiction and mental health issues, said Carter, adding that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. When he wasn't on the streets, he was in jail for crimes ranging from drug possession to assault.
"In many ways, the years behind bars were good years because I had time to read, I had time for independent scholarship," he said, adding that of all the things he lost during his time on the streets, losing his personal notes and journals was the most devastating.
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After years of homelessness, a friend told Carter about Arbor Terrace, an affordable housing complex in South Austin. Carter moved there seven years ago, continuing to work odd jobs and panhandle, too.
"I'd been panhandling a long time, and I couldn't have made it without my friends on campus," he said. "I'd talk to them, take notes from the things that they say, talk to people who are math majors, history majors, philosophy majors. People from India and Japan and China and Mexico, people from all over the world. I listen to everybody, because I've learned things from people who didn't have a sixth-grade education that I couldn't have learned from a college professor and vice versa."
Last fall, Carter met and listened to Chandler, and Chandler, 20, listened back. After confirming that Carter was indeed a registered student in the 1970s, Chandler wrote an article about him that quickly gained attention.
"You see this person on the street, and most people don't give him a second thought," Chandler said. "But it just goes to show you that every person you talk to has a story, and they have hopes and dreams just like all of us."
A second chance
As he started looking into the readmission process, Chandler learned that Carter had tried to reapply previously and had taken all the necessary steps but hadn't been able to afford the reapplication fee.
"He had done everything right," Chandler said. "He just needed the application fee."
Chandler helped him with the fee, and in April Carter was notified that he had been readmitted. Soon after, Carter was profiled by the Alcalde, a magazine for Texas Exes.
"That gained the attention of a lot of alumni, and one reached out and said, 'This is a great story, don't let finances be a reason this doesn't happen,'" Chandler said, adding that the alumnus pledged to pay for Carter's tuition as long as he was in school. "He didn't want any recognition from it. He just wanted to see this inspiring story happen."
The university, too, worked to support Carter.
"David Carter's resolve to complete his degree is a testament to finishing well what was started, and interrupted, even decades earlier," Doug Dempster, dean of the College of Fine Arts, said in a statement. "We welcome him back as we do many students each year whose education took a less direct path. We admire his courage and persistence. We're going to give him every assistance to help him through his remaining coursework."
In June, nearly 50 years after he first set foot in a UT classroom, Carter again found himself enrolled as a student. He hopes to change his major from studio art to art history; if all goes well, he'll be 70 when he receives his degree.
"That would be just spectacular," Carter said. "I would feel like a made man."
Becoming a Longhorn, again
On a recent Friday, Carter sat in a classroom in Burdine Hall on campus wearing a button-down shirt with a Longhorn logo on the pocket that Chandler's dad bought him and a backpack that his classmates chipped in to get him. Before he had a backpack, he was using a Chick-fil-A bag to carry his books and papers.
"Textbooks and backpacks and school supplies — I started a GoFundMe to cover those costs," Chandler said. "I didn't want to do that, because the donor was generous enough that we didn't have to pay for tuition, but he's going to need a lot more resources."
Because Carter is enrolled as a student — he's taking six hours this summer — he has access to amenities such as University Health Services and campus computer labs. Still, he said, getting back into the groove of being a student has been a challenge.
"I still spend a lot of time thinking, and in that time I need to be reading," Carter said.
He's made friends in class, like senior Rashad Rivers, 22, who try to help as much as they can.
"He's a very humble individual," Rivers said. "He's very grateful for all of the help he's received, he's extremely intelligent, and just having conversations with him, you can tell he knows a lot about history. He's just a really good person, and I'm glad he's back at UT and making progress and getting his degree."
Carter said he's grateful for all of the attention and help he's received, although he's also realistic about the fact that he might not graduate.
"It makes me feel good if I can be an inspiration to others," he said. "But whether I can do it, I don't know if I can. I'm going to do it if I can, and if I can't, so be it."
Even if he doesn't graduate, Carter said he's already gained so much. In addition to continuing his education, the attention he received helped him reconnect with a former love he calls the Little Mouse, with whom he shared a 12-year relationship and three daughters.
"On my kick-the-bucket list was to do something for the Little Mouse," he said. "I had $20 I could send her, and (my friend) said, 'Send her $100,' and he gave me a $100 money order. I called her and talked to her for the first time in 30 years. I found a little lost friend."
No matter what happens, Chandler agreed, Carter is already achieving his goal.
"I don't care if he does well in school or if he gets his degree," Chandler said. "He has accomplished a big feat in my mind. He's 67; a degree isn't going to help his career. He's going back to school for the sake of learning. If he is able to go back to school and have a purpose and do something with his life again, that's what this goal really is. That's what it's all about."