Student takes hard road back

Stephanie Toone

As Bowling Green native Christopher Cherry looks around his astronomy class, he notices a major difference between himself and his classmates.

“I am surrounded by people who are at least ten years younger than I am,” said Cherry, a 31-year-old undergrad.

Cherry began his college career 13 years ago. Fresh out of high school, he enrolled at Western to pursue his passion – theater.

“As long as I can remember, I always wanted to entertain people,” he said.

Then the freedom of college knocked him off track.

Wanting to rebel against his conservative background, Cherry began partying excessively and experimenting with drugs. He said he also needed acceptance from his peers, feeling alienated as a gay man.

Cherry’s grandmother Alice Basham said he was raised in a strict Pentecostal family.

“He led a very sheltered life,” Basham said. “He got into a world he had never seen before.”

Cherry’s active social life left him little time to focus on his schoolwork.

“I was exposed to much more freedom at Western,” he said. “I spent more time exploring and experimenting with the freedom than I did with the education.”

After two years of partying, sleeping late and skipping class, Cherry found himself in what he now calls the “lost semester.”

“I stopped going to class like the third week of the semester, and it was past the drop/add period,” he said. “I never went and withdrew from classes, so I got all Fs that semester.”

Cherry said he didn’t realize it would be a long time before he returned to Western.

“I didn’t think about it really,” he said. “I had other things to think about, like going to the next party, which led me to going from city to city, having a good time in less-than-desirable situations.”

Cherry’s party-hopping led him to Philadelphia, where he found some stability. He auditioned at the Philly Repertory and was hired. He worked there as a professional actor for the next two seasons.

When he finished at the Philly Repertory, he returned to Bowling Green. But coming home did not halt his escalating drug habit.

As his problem worsened, Basham said she began to see a change in Cherry.

“I couldn’t trust him,” she said. “He would say he needed money to do something, but I knew he was lying. He was trying to get money for drugs.”

Basham said it took time in jail for Cherry to recognize the severity of his situation. He was arrested when he was 28. He spent a month in jail and was then admitted into a drug court program, and finally into an inpatient rehabilitation program.

Cherry said the time spent in rehab, and later in a recovery home, began his road to sobriety.

However, he said his spiritual life kept him on the right path.

“The spiritual connection is what caused any sustainable change,” he said. “Beyond my beliefs, engaging in spiritual connection is probably the reason I changed.”

Cherry said the support of his mother, grandmother, sister and friends also helped him stay clean.

Basham said Cherry’s successful recovery owes much to his own determination.

“He’s very strong minded,” she said. “He had the the strength to change through his own willpower.”

Cherry returned to Western a year ago and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in performing arts with an emphasis in theater. He plans to eventually earn a master’s degree in directing. He recently directed a play, “Fuddy Meers,” at the Public Theater of Kentucky in Bowling Green.

Cherry said that his experience taught him a lot, but he is regretful.

“I look back and realize that if I would have completed what I started I would be in a much better professional situation today,” he said.

He said many students are making the same mistakes he did.

“Students who blow things off and don’t focus are losing out,” he said. “They’re wandering around more susceptible to outside influences.”

The lack of focus and ambition is what ruined his early years in college, Cherry said. He said the best advice he can offer to college students is to wisely juggle their social and scholastic lives.

“Learning to balance recreation with studying is important,” Cherry said.

Reach Stephanie Toone at [email protected]