Ian Hulette’s road has never been easy
Ian Hulette’s road has never been easy. But now, as he looks back on how he got to where he is—less than a year from earning his MSW—he sees meaning in it, and a purpose that he is on his way to fulfilling.
Ian Hulette is likely one of the very few previously incarcerated individuals who has turned down early release for good behavior. “I was sentenced for six years to do three, and I was going to do all three because I wanted it to help shape me,” says Hulette, who was convicted in 2015 for cooking methamphetamine and is now due to graduate with his MSW from the University of Illinois in May 2023. (His conviction was for a Class 1 felony; he was required to serve at least 50% of his sentence.) So, Hulette said “No thank you” to early release, spent an additional six months in prison, and continued to prepare himself for a better life on the outside.
Tours of Duty
Hulette’s early road prepared him for the many bumps he would encounter later in life. “I was born in rural poverty in Indiana, dirt road, trailer, holes in the wall at some points, single mom with five kids, a lot of welfare, some sexual abuse as a child from my stepfather,” he says. “Looking back on my life, I’m like, how did I even get through all this.”
In 2001, Hulette joined the National Guard after graduating from high school, serving in the African nation of Djibouti for six months before going for eight more months to southern Iraq and Kuwait.
Upon his return to the States, Hulette enrolled at Purdue, going to school during the day and working 12-hour shifts as a 911 emergency dispatcher at night. That was interrupted by a third tour of duty, again in Iraq. This one, he says, was the toughest of all.
“There was a lot of existential angst,” he says. “You’re sitting in a vehicle staring at a road in front of you, wondering if it’s going to blow up or not. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes people are injured, and sometimes they aren’t.”
In 2009, Hulette injured his shoulder and was prescribed OxyContin from the VA hospital to manage his pain. Soon, he was on back-to-back prescriptions of 240 pills a month. “I wasn’t prepared for how it would make me feel,” Hulette says of the opioid. Besides alleviating pain, OxyContin leads to a euphoric, relaxing high.
The downside, Hulette now knows, is the drug is highly addictive.
“That was the beginning of a slow, downward spiral, which ended my time at Purdue,” he says. He left Purdue one course shy of graduating with a degree in education, intent on becoming a high school English teacher.
Road to Recovery
It was his own high school English teacher, Mrs. Brown, who gave him a bookmark that said “It’s never too late to be what you always wanted to be.”
Having served time in prison, he could no longer be a teacher. While he served his final six months—which he was not required to—he contemplated what he wanted to do with his life. He had become an adept welder in prison and figured he could make a decent living at that trade.
But then he thought again.
“In prison, I learned I was privileged being a vet, being a white male,” he says. “I didn’t want to waste the opportunity that comes with those privileges. That would be disrespectful. I told myself I can’t just let all these experiences be for nothing. I can use them going forward.”
So, after spending time in a halfway house and then in a home for homeless veterans in Springfield upon his release from prison, he moved to Champaign with his partner in 2018. He spent a semester at Parkland College in 2019 and then started at the University of Illinois in fall 2019, in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES).
That was after applying to, and being turned down by, the School of Social Work. He had determined to be a social worker because “I saw a gap in the number of social workers who have my background. I know how difficult it is to recover from heroin addiction, how difficult it is for a vet to deal with that stuff, and I felt like the VA could use me.”
But the School said he wasn’t quite ready and suggested ACES, saying it could be a pathway to the MSW that
“So that’s the road I went down,” he says. Having earned a 3.96 GPA at Parkland, he made the Dean’s List at ACES. When he reapplied to the School of Social Work, they deemed him ready.
“Both the university and the School have been so welcoming and supportive,” he says. “They’re willing to listen and respect my insights on things from my own experiences. I always felt like a very valuable member of the classroom.”
Hulette will do his internship at Two Roads Wellness Clinic, which integrates mental health treatment with expressive arts therapy, family therapy, nutritional counseling, and more. He eventually would like to end up with the VA, giving back to the organization that has helped him in so many ways over the years.
“Most of the social workers at the VA were good to me,” he says. “They were non-judgmental, so if you made a mistake, they’d say it didn’t matter, we’ll keep working at it.”
Hulette wants to be that person for somebody. Specifically, for some vet.
A New Man
Hulette has a lengthily-worded tattoo on each arm. One is from Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche.
“Basically, it talks about how you can’t be a creator if you haven’t destroyed yourself,” he explains. “I felt like he was speaking directly to me when I read it. I’ve destroyed myself, and now it’s my responsibility to recreate myself.”
Here is how Hulette has recreated himself: He is a gym rat, working on body building four or five times a week. He meditates. He manages his stress, including PTSD, without medication. He has been sober since December 23, 2014, the day of his arrest. He is a voracious reader (“I read over 120 books in prison, all the world classics, using my disability income from the VA to have my mom send me books”). He is in a steady relationship with his partner and is a loving stepfather to her 15 year-old son. He has reconstructed, step by painful step, a loving relationship with the son and daughter that he fathered. He somehow finds time to drive all over the Midwest as his three children take part in travel hockey, figure skating, travel soccer, and basketball competitions.
Someday, perhaps, Ian Hulette might add writer to that recreation list. “When the kids are old enough and I’m on a work schedule and I’m not reading scientific articles to write a paper, I’d like to write,” he says. “Everyone in the School tells me I have a great story to tell.”
But for now, he’s too busy living it to tell it.