Lisa Taylor's walk across stage to collect her Samford University diploma Saturday (DEC. 15) will culminate a journey with detours that would dishearten many.
Her quest for higher education that began in the 1980s was derailed by an abusive teenage marriage, challenges as a single mother of three and bad decisions that landed her in a Thailand prison on drug trafficking charges for four years with an additional 18 months confinement in the U.S.
"I always knew there was something better for me," said Taylor, who will be among about 279 seniors receiving Samford degrees during 10 a.m. exercises in the school's Pete Hanna Center.
She tells her story to campus and community groups as a way to share her Christian faith and to encourage hope, regardless of circumstances.
In 1993, Taylor was a single mother juggling studies at Lawson State Community College and several jobs to pay off a $12,000 debt incurred by her ex-husband. The prospect of moving her young children, then ages 5, 7 and 10, out of crime-ridden public housing in Bessemer led her to take an offer that would add a quick $15,000 to her income.
"Poor choices had caused me not to experience a better place and way to provide for my family and to be safe," said Taylor, who agreed to take a suitcase from Thailand to another country for a person she met through an acquaintance.
"I knew the contents were illegal, but I did not know the bag contained 5.3 kilos of heroin," said Taylor. "I was green. I never got the promised money, but instead got 6 years in jail."
When she was arrested in April, 1994, U.S. Embassy officials advised her that she would be tried under Thai law, which carries a death sentence if more than one kilo of drugs is involved. A guilty plea, however, would result in a lesser life sentence.
"I needed to plead guilty. My mother was on social security, raising my children," said Taylor, who spent her time at Lard Yao Women's Remand Center reading textbooks, the Bible and other Christian material, and sharing her faith with inmates from 32 nations.
Daily prayer sessions she led with three women turned into daily Bible studies and worship services on Sunday. Soon, hundreds were coming to her prayer sessions.
"I felt like Joseph in prison. God gave me favor because the Thai people saw in me a difference that remained constant. They saw me serving people, and saw God's hand working in my life."
In Thailand, 95 percent of the people are Buddhist, 4 percent Muslim, and less than 1 percent Christian.
Eventually, under a treaty that allowed Americans in Thai prisons to transfer to U.S. prisons and be sentenced as if their crime had been committed in the U.S., she returned to the U.S.
After four years and two months at the Thai prison, where nightly she had compressed her 5' 7" frame into bedding that was 18" wide and 4 and one-half feet long, she spent 13 months at facilities in California, Oklahoma and Florida. The final five months of her confinement were at a Halfway house in Birmingham in the spring of 2000.
After her release, jobs at More Than Conquerors Faith Church, as a licensed nail technician and part-time work at a hotel followed.
In 2002, realizing her lack of marketable skills, and still desiring better for her family, she quit her jobs to attend Jefferson State Community College under the Workforce Investment Act. She excelled academically and was inducted into honor societies.
Her scholastic success there helped secure scholarship funds to Samford, where she enrolled in 2004. A work study job with Samford in Mission and off-campus jobs helped pay the rent.
Having founded a non-profit organization, Women Have A Meaning 2, she chose to major in business management with a concentration in marketing to enhance her marketing skills. She later added a communications studies major offered through Samford's College of Arts and Sciences.
"I needed to know business and marketing, and also to communicate effectively," said Taylor. "I know God has given me a message, and I need to communicate that message."
The marriage of the two fields of study has been good, says Taylor, who exercised both disciplines during a fall semester internship as a student loaned executive with United Way.
Her many meetings with company coordinators to plan United Way campaigns at her 108 accounts required all her time management and organization skills, said Taylor, who was enrolled in four courses at the time.
"I didn't realize how much United Way had impacted my family," she said, citing the two years she lived in housing for homeless women and children provided by Pathways, a United Way agency.
The experience has helped shape her post-graduation job-search.
"I came to Samford to become more effective in the non-profit sector, but through my work I have come to see how for-profit companies can impact the community and society," she says.
She earned several honors during a business school awards program last spring, including the community service award.
"Lisa is an extraordinary individual," says Samford business dean Dr. Beck Taylor. "Her faith, coupled with nothing less than sheer determination, has enabled her to succeed in a very challenging degree program at the Brock School of Business. She is an example for her fellow students, and for all of us."
Her now-grown children, a grandchild, her mother, Ovetta Richardson, and other relations will form a strong support section at Commencement on Saturday.
Feeling blessed, and following Jesus Christ's admonition that "To whom much is given, much is required," Taylor has established small scholarships in business and communication studies for academically and economically challenged students
It's a small thing, she says, compared to the generosity of Birmingham banker Harry B. Brock, for whom the School of Business was recently named, but she would like to see more Samford students give back to the institution.
"Those of us who will never see a million dollars can put our pennies together and help."