MOUNT VERNON — On Nov. 1, 2013, Kyle Von Stroberg’s life started over.
For years, the Skagit County native said he’d been in and out of jail and on and off the streets.
“It just became a revolving door,” he said. “I’d get clean, and I’d still end up in jail. I woke up one day and I said, ‘My life needs to change.’ I was just tired of living the same life.”
On that day, after a yearlong stint behind bars, Von Stroberg walked out of the Skagit County Jail and into Skagit Valley College — toward his new life.
“Skagit Valley College, they believe in people,” Von Stroberg said. “When you walk in the door, there’s no stigma there. Everybody there wants you to succeed.”
Now a Skagit Valley College graduate, the 38-year-old Von Stroberg has found a way to give back by starting the Second Chance Scholarship at the college. The goal is to help other formerly incarcerated individuals find success.
“It’s never too late to start making the right decisions,” he said. “I believe it wholeheartedly.”
The endowed scholarship has accrued nearly $50,000 and four students have received scholarships since it started in 2016, said Skagit Valley College Foundation Executive Director Anne Clark.
“The whole point of this is because everybody deserves a second chance,” Von Stroberg said. “We’re all just one choice away from being behind bars.”
It was from behind bars that Von Stroberg, with encouragement from former Skagit County Sheriff’s Corrections deputy Julie Zorn, set up an appointment to meet with faculty from the college the day he was released.
“When I got released she said ‘Don’t ever come back here,’” he said of his last meeting with Zorn, who died in March.
Von Stroberg began his Skagit Valley College career in the college’s Life Transitions Program, which helps students who have faced hardship transition into college life.
For the formerly incarcerated, who often leave jail with not much more than the clothes they came in with, starting over can be difficult.
“When you walk out of that jail, you’re a different person than when you walked in,” Von Stroberg said. “All they’re going to know about is what they learned in jail.”
He found his passion, he said, when he entered the college’s marine technology program in Anacortes.
“I walked in those doors and I was like, ‘I love this,’” he said. “Through them, it gave me a new passion in life. A new start.”
He used that passion to help jump-start the Second Chance scholarship. While attending school and working, Von Stroberg built a boat, which he then raffled off at the Anacortes Water Festival for $5,000 to help start the scholarship, he said.
Raising that money, he said, made him feel like people would be supportive of the scholarship.
“This is something people actually want to hear about,” he said. “Change and second chances. To see people actually care and want to help was such a relief.”
The festival is also where he met a couple that would later donate $15,000 to the scholarship.
“Why it has resonated is because of Kyle and how he tells his story,” Clark said. “He just creates this vision of hope and is living proof that anyone can make a difference in the world.”
The scholarship, she said, fits in with the college’s mission of equity, equality and removing barriers for all.
Clark said when students now fill out their college paperwork, there’s a box that asks if they have ever been incarcerated.
“Don’t be ashamed,” she said of checking the box.
That’s the message Von Stroberg said he tries to spread when he speaks to inmates in the Skagit and Island county jails.
“I tell them there’s hope,” he said. “I tell them you can use school to better your life. There isn’t a dead-end street unless you make it.”
This year, Clark said, at least $3,700 in scholarship funds will be awarded.
Von Stroberg said he hopes those students who receive that money will help others facing the same struggles.
“I made poor choices and I made good choices,” he said. “I can’t change my past, but I can better what I do. I’m just thankful for the second chance I got in life.”