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UNLV student, Truman Scholar focuses work on addiction treatment after tough childhood

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Kelsey Elizabeth Matthews
Kevyn Major Howard Photography/UNLV

Kelsey Elizabeth Matthews

The Harry S. Truman Scholarship may be the most prestigious honor a college student can get for public service.

Last month, one was awarded to UNLV junior and social work major Kelsey Elizabeth Matthews.

It’s a remarkable achievement for someone who struggled throughout her childhood to keep up in school. Matthews grew up having to look after a parent who was addicted to drugs.

Now, Matthews, a student in UNLV’s Honors College, devotes most of her time advocating for substance abuse treatment and prevention.

She started doing pageants in 2015. A year later, her mother died of a drug overdose. In the pageant world, she changed her focus from animal rescue and adoption to addiction and drug overdose awareness, as well as mental health.

The Treasuring Tracy Project was named in memory of her mother. She eventually wants to launch it into a nonprofit organization.

“This should be a given that no child should have to endure [those] things, that no child should have to step up to the plate and take on. But unfortunately, in my situation, somebody had to do it,” she said.

Growing up, her grandparents were there, but she said they didn’t talk about her mother’s addiction or know how to help her. Matthews stepped up to take care of her mom.

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“If my mom was breathing in the morning, it was a really good day.”

She said it was a very large responsibility, but she was born addicted to crack cocaine, born into a life “that was less than ideal for everyone involved.”

She was 17 when her mom died.

“She was this kind of awful person. She was a bad mother. I remember calling my mother a junkie multiple times throughout my childhood and I regret that now wholeheartedly, but as a kid, I was angry and I was upset, and I was confused,” she said.

While living in Connecticut, she made friends from Las Vegas in a support group, and made the decision to enroll in college in Nevada.  

Her mother’s death changed the way she viewed addiction. What many don’t realize, she said, is that many addicts self-medicate for underlying mental health conditions, trauma or other reasons.

She graduated College of Southern Nevada with honors, and is now enrolled at UNLV. “This favor that God has on me, He gets the glory for all of it, because it's not just by my own strength,” she said, speaking on what she came from and how far she’s come.

The Truman Scholarship will give her $30,000 to use for her graduate studies. She wants to get a juris doctorate with a dual degree in public policy, a master’s degree, but doesn’t want to be in debt.

“Being a Truman Scholar opens up so much opportunity that I am very, very positive that I will receive some good offers,” she said. “I do see myself coming back to Nevada, and eventually having a presence in the political sector here.”


If you or a loved one is experiencing substance use issues, there are many resources available in Nevada. For more information, click here.

 

Guests

Kelsey Elizabeth Matthews, student, UNLV, and Truman Scholarship recipient

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