Ryan Matthews is a loving dad and husband as well as a recent college graduate, which, at first look, is nothing too remarkable. However, his story is anything but typical.

Until just over a decade ago, he was a death row inmate in Louisiana. He was ultimately cleared of the charges and released. And Ryan set out to make a better life for himself.

“He used it [his past as a death row inmate] as the fuel for him to accomplish each of his accomplishments,” his wife, Candacee Matthews says.

He’s never been angry, he’s never been bitter.

He was unfairly incarcerated at the age of 17

Matthews was unfairly convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1999, despite forensic evidence that excluded his DNA from the mask the suspect had left behind at the crime scene.

“We knew what the verdict was going to be,” his sister, Monique Coleman, told CNN. “He was a young black man and it was a white store owner.”

Ryan recalls the confusion that he felt at time. “I didn’t know what was happening to me, I had nothing to do with this,” he says. “But I just kind of knew this happens to people that are innocent.”

In the years that followed, his family fought to prove his innocence. Matthews was exonerated in 2004 after serving seven years behind bars, five of them on death row.

He was determined to get a college degree

It took a lot of resolve and determination, but he eventually achieved success. Matthews graduated Saturday from Texas Woman’s University with a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Arts and Sciences.

The degree did not come easy. He worked 12-hour overnight shifts at a packaging firm and his parental duties didn’t stop either. He took his four children to school and sat down with them to study.

However, Ryan was motivated. He knew that he owed it to himself and his family to make the life that was returned to him as meaningful as possible.  

“I’m trying to be the best I could be,” he tells WFAA.

He keeps his options open for the future

As for what’s next, he is considering a lot of options, from financial planning to accounting or some kind of environmental work.

“It’s all something new for me,” he says. “But I welcome the challenge. I love it.”

In the end, Ryan was vindicated. He could have allowed the terrible events of his past to continue dictating the rest of his life. Instead, he decided to take control of the rest of his life.

We can all learn from his determination

Sometimes, we let past events define who we are, which can inhibit us in the long term. If we remove the past from the picture and focus on what’s ahead, we allow ourselves control over the blank canvas that is our future.

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