CINCINNATI -- Stay in school. Don't do drugs. Never give up.
Tyra Patterson shared that advice with Aiken High School students Thursday. She spent more than two decades in prison for a crime she didn't commit.
"Stay in school. Graduate," she told the students. "Surround yourself with people who will challenge you."
Patterson was convicted in 1994 of murder and robbery when she was 19. She spent 23 years in prison, and was released because she didn't commit those crimes.
Patterson said the path she took left her homeless and illiterate before she ended up behind bars. She smoked marijuana when she was young, and her brothers sold drugs, she said.
"I made the mistake of dropping our of school in elementary," she said. "I was 11 years old."
Her message resonated with students like Avonah Gray.
"I kind of connected with her," Gray said.
The students are studying ways to change mass incarceration. Patterson was right in sync with the effort.
"We have to humanize the people who are incarcerated and in mass incarceration, and be mentors," Patterson said.
She didn't duck any of the questions from students. Prison was hard. She became the queen of microwave cooking. And what does she think of the woman who finally came forward and proved her innocence?
"How can I forgive the girl who knew I was innocent? How do I forgive her? Because she lost a sister," Patterson said. "She went through way more than I went through."
Patterson's spirit, her love for freedom and her determination provided valuable life lessons.
"After she got out, she didn't give up," Aiken junior Antwon Lindsey said. "She could have just said, 'I'm going to do what I want to do,' but she kept going."