Learning the Hard Way

After a lifetime of trauma, alumna finds a home — and renewed purpose — at UNT.
Written by: 
Erin Cristales

It seems a little hyperbolic at first, but Stephanie Henry-Ricchi (’19) is so sincere in her assertion that higher education rescued her — from a troubled past marred by sexual abuse, toxic relationships and drug addiction, and the more recent trauma of an attempted sexual assault — that the unvarnished truth of her words becomes quickly, and undeniably, apparent.

She’s sharing her story at a table near the back of Denton’s West Oak Coffeehouse, a popular hangout for UNT’s student population situated on the iconic downtown Square. Even though she lives in McKinney, Henry-Ricchi selected the coffeeshop as her preferred meeting destination, a perfect excuse, she says, to head back to the city where she found herself academically and emotionally.  

“The people at this school, they just knew what I needed without me even asking,” says Henry-Ricchi, who at 54 earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology with a minor in peace studies, along with a certificate in UNT’s Peace Corps prep course. “UNT looks at nontraditional students like me, and they don’t see someone who’s looking for a hobby or just needs to get out of the house. They really look at you seriously when you say, ‘I want my education.’”

Henry-Ricchi had always longed for higher learning, but her dreams were stifled by a tumultuous relationship with her mother, childhood molestation by a relative, drug abuse and working as a stripper. After years of enduring a boyfriend’s unrelenting taunts of “stupid,” she decided to test his assertion, and at 22 visited a vocational school in Enid, Oklahoma. Literacy tests revealed she had dyslexia and read at a third-grade level, so Henry-Ricchi worked to develop her fluency through Little Golden Books before tackling her first real adult novel: George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

“I still have that copy,” says Henry-Ricchi, who eventually opened a bookshop in downtown McKinney in 2004 (now closed). “I followed it up with Lake Wobegon Days. And then I just became obsessed with reading. Anytime I had a question about anything — getting clean, getting rid of a mean boyfriend, bleaching my hair — I read about it.”

Still, she says, life was a roller coaster and there was no book that could provide a clear answer for how to claw her way out of the valleys. She continued to struggle with drugs and alcohol, ultimately losing custody of her then 2-year-old daughter, in 1987. The experience served as a wake-up call, leading her to more concretely turn her life around. Henry-Ricchi admitted herself into a rehab facility in the spring of 1990 — she left nine weeks later and has been clean since.

That experience inspired her to further better herself through education, first by enrolling in Collin College, then by transferring to UNT.

She also funneled her own harrowing experiences into advocacy for victims of sexual abuse and human trafficking, working with dozens of organizations including Hope’s Door, TexProtects, the Collin County Children’s Advocacy Center, the Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center and the McKinney Police Department’s Child Protection Unit. In 2013, Henry-Ricchi published a memoir, titled If Only I Could Sleep, that detailed her arduous personal journey and her emergence as a champion for women and children entrenched in similarly rough situations.

If Only I Could Sleep
In 2013, Henry-Ricchi self-published a memoir about her experiences.

“If someone says, ‘I can’t get out of my circumstances or I don’t know the answer,’ I’m like, ‘Look, I’m your girl,’” she says. “I’m absolutely willing to be an example. It hasn’t always been easy — the ridicule and judgment got really bad after I released the book. But if anyone reads it and thinks, ‘If she could go back to school, then I can go back to school,’ I’m good. I can lay my head on my pillow and sleep well.”

In 2016, Henry-Ricchi transferred to UNT, where she focused on learning more about international human rights. Classes like those taught by sociology chair and social movements expert Donna Barnes helped relieve the anxiety and pain that still occasionally plagued her, and university life provided the strength necessary to deal with the sexual assault case in which she prepared to testify, along with the shock of the alleged assailant fleeing the country prior to trial.

“My drive back and forth to Denton every day — it just provided me with some hope and relief,” says Henry-Ricchi, whose younger daughter, Mary, attends UNT as a political science major. “As someone who comes from such chaos, it was incredible to get to a location where I could make sense of things. Here, I could just be a student.”

Following graduation, her desire to learn and grow hasn’t waned. She continues to write, and is currently working on a screenplay version of her memoir. She remains an advocate for victims of sexual assault, even pressing for legislation that would modify the current Texas Code for elections in relation to those with sexual violence offenses, as well as a bill to relinquish all travel documents for perpetrators awaiting trial for sexual assault and rape.

But there are still dark days, she says, where trauma envelops her like a fog. When the blackness descends, she taps into the mindset that allowed her to transform from a woman with a third-grade reading level to a university graduate.

“I tell myself, ‘All right. Stop these thoughts. Let’s get going,’” Henry-Ricchi says. “I have to get to that place in my head that makes me go all in, like when I bought those books, threw on my backpack and walked into class. Before I left for this interview, my husband looked at me and said, ‘You always know how to get to where you need to be.’ And I responded, ‘That’s because I have to be one of those changemakers.’”

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