A small stream of light trickled through the window of his prison cell as Ronnie Hopkins fell to his knees.

"How He Loves" by the David Crowder Band played on the radio, and Hopkins let the words wash over him.

As he raised his hands toward the window, he knew his life would never be the same.

The Canal Fulton resident had struggled with addiction for years. After being incarcerated for manufacturing methamphetamine, Hopkins decided to turn his life around by giving his heart to God and focusing on furthering his education.

In 2014, Hopkins entered prison without a high school education. In 2017, with the help of a digital inmate education program called JPay’s Lantern, he left prison with college credit. Hopkins graduated from Ashland University on Saturday with an associate degree in general studies.

"It's an amazing journey that God has put me on," Hopkins said. "God changed my life. He changed everything about me."

 

Addiction

In 1998, Hopkins moved to West Virginia to live with his aunt and uncle after his mother died of a heart attack.

Herb Miller, Hopkins' uncle, said he and his wife were operating Faith Mountain Ministries, a retreat consisting of 250 wooded acres, when his nephew moved in with them.

The house was on a beautiful mountain in West Virginia, Miller said, isolated from town.

"I felt like I was alone," Hopkins said. "I felt sorry for myself. (My aunt and uncle) gave me every opportunity to succeed, but I had this anger in me. I felt like I had been cheated."

He grew up with little supervision due to an ill mother and an absent father, and turned to drugs. Hopkins' addiction began with smoking marijuana in his early teens. He recalled getting drunk and high as young as 13 years old. As he grew older, methamphetamine became his drug of choice. In 2014, Hopkins was arrested for manufacturing meth.

"It looked hopeless at that point," the 35-year-old said.

 

A new path

Miller didn't look for an attorney for his nephew when the trial began.

"He needed to own up to what he did," Miller said. "The penalty seemed harsh — three years in prison — but on the other hand, it may have been what Ronnie needed."

On the day of his sentencing, Hopkins made a deal with God: "If you give me less time, I'll dedicate my life to you," he bartered.

When the judge pronounced the sentence, Hopkins wanted to feel angry. He punched the wall trying to bring that feeling to the surface. Instead, a wave of peace washed over him. He felt calm.

He switched on a radio in his cell and the song, "Drunk on a Plane" by Dierks Bentley was playing. Hopkins hit the scan button twice searching for a different station and stopped at a Christian music station.

As the David Crowder Band song filled his cell, he knew he would keep the deal he made with God.

"It dropped me to my knees, and I raised my hands," Hopkins said. "I said, 'I'm going to trust you, God.' It's so much more than a song to me."

 

Education

During his three-year sentence at Grafton Correctional Institution, Hopkins focused on his faith and education.

He lacked a high school diploma. Not long after he was transferred from Summit County Jail to Grafton, he signed up for preparation classes and took the test for his GED, passing it with such high marks that he was asked to tutor other inmates.

He didn't want to stop there.

Hopkins enrolled at Ashland University, where he attended in-person classes with others. Many of his peers were taking the college courses to get "good time," which could lead to possible early release, he explained.

The classes were loud and distracting. When Hopkins first heard of JPay's Lantern, he made the switch to taking online courses using a tablet.

Through JPay's Lantern, Hopkins was able to complete courses at his own pace. Other individuals using the tablets carved out study time to sit together as they worked on various courses in history, accounting and business.

After his first semester, Hopkins made the dean's list.

"Education was used to change my life," Hopkins said. "God used that to change me. I was worth the investment in myself."

JPay's Lantern launched in 2015 and has more than 85,000 incarcerated individuals enrolled in six states, said Jade Trombetta, senior manager of brand marketing and social media.

"The best part about it is education really rehabilitates and changes the trajectory of their lives," Trombetta said. "It gives them a better chance of success once they're released. ... Ronnie is a great example of that."

 

Faith

Miller noticed a change in his nephew when he went to visit him at Grafton.

"With the Lord in your life, it gives you a whole lot better chance of staying out of trouble," Miller said. "He's not afraid of work, and he's not afraid to share his faith either."

Today, Hopkins has an apartment and recently finished training for a position at Christian Healthcare Ministries, an organization that provides financial assistance for the medical needs of Christians who are ministry members.

In the future, he plans to get a bachelor's degree.

For now, Hopkins wants to focus on his role as leader of student ministries at Movement Church in Coventry Township.

"College is a lot of work — as it should be," Hopkins said. "I feel like my teens need me to be here. One of these teens might be where I was at 15."