U.S. Army veteran and award-winning Penn State graduate earns national attention

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — ABC’s "Good Morning America" featured Penn State graduate Danielle Joliet on May 10 as part of the GMA Class of 2017. Joliet, a U.S. Army veteran and graduate of the Penn State College of Education, is also the recipient of the Penn State Outstanding Adult Student Award. This success did not come to Joliet without challenges — the wife and mother of two is a recovering alcoholic who found a way to turn her life around and help others do the same.

WATCH: Veteran and mother of 2 shares inspirational story of going back to school

At age 17, Joliet was using drugs and dropped out of high school. Her road to recovery began when she walked into a U.S. Army Recruiting Center in Philadelphia. 

“The recruiter didn’t judge me on my appearance. He merely asked if I could pass a drug test and if I graduated from high school, to which I replied — 'no,'” Joliet said. “He could have easily told me I was hopeless, but he told me to come back tomorrow with sneakers and be ready to work.”

Joliet said the recruiter stood by her as she worked toward sobriety and earned her GED.

“I thrived in the structure of the Army and dropped the idea of doing drugs, but welcomed its more socially acceptable partner in alcohol,” Joliet said. “By 18, I was stationed in Germany, pregnant and alone. I was scared, but figured it out as I went along and tried to be the best mom I could. At 19, I married the father of my son, Randy, to prevent us from being stationed apart.”

In 2003, Joliet chose to discharge from the U.S. Army and stay with her son while her husband was sent to Iraq. They later divorced and Joliet found herself returning to drugs and alcohol.

“I once again realized I could not run my own life. In 2006, I went back to where I had last felt good about myself — the U.S. Army,” Joliet said.

Joliet was then sent to Iraq, where she met and later married her second husband, Brendan. Stress fractures in both hips forced her to return to the U.S., where she spent five months in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. She was not cleared to return to service herself, but followed her husband as he continued to travel while on active duty.  During this time, Joliet’s second son — Patrick — was born with a congenital heart disease that required two open-heart surgeries. Joliet once again turned to alcohol for comfort, but this time realized she had to change or could lose her family.

“With all the evidence stacked against me and a husband willing to stay by my side, I walked into recovery and through the pain of my past,” Joliet said. “I had to learn to love myself and accept my journey.”

Joliet then decided to follow another dream: earning a degree from Penn State.

“I was keeping my head down, going to class and going home, but I did not feel connected to the University,” Joliet said. “One of my professors told me about the Penn State Collegiate Recovery Community. I joined and quickly became an advocate for it on campus.”

Penn State CRC is a support group designed to create an environment of inclusion for students recovering from addiction. After Joliet successfully completed her first academic year at Penn State, while volunteering with CRC, the Office of Veterans Programs invited her to mentor other veterans as well.

“I saw opportunities where I could be out in the world doing anything through education, and I wanted to share it with others,” Joliet said.

Joliet earned a 4.0 grade-point average and served as student marshal during May 2017 graduation ceremonies for the Penn State College of Education. She has been accepted to graduate school in hopes of becoming a rehabilitation counselor. Leslie Laing, assistant director of Adult Learner Programs and Services, said Joliet’s story is the epitome of resilience and the reason she was chosen for the 2017 Outstanding Adult Student Award.

“Danielle has overcome numerous obstacles, devised creative solutions and implemented sensible procedures to significantly improve the quality of support offered to the CRC and finds time to mentor female veterans as they transition to the university,” Laing said. “Her character, passion and commitment personifies what it means to be outstanding. Danielle has made serving others and impacting the community a way of life. She makes us Penn State proud.”

Along with the award, Joliet was presented with a Penn State diploma case and a $500 grant from the Adult Learner Opportunity Fund. The fund was established by Laing to aid nontraditional-aged students and veterans who are juggling financial and family responsibilities while earning an undergraduate degree.

To contribute to help other students facing challenges while earning a degree, visit the Adult Learner Opportunity Fund online.

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Last Updated May 11, 2017