MBA offers exonerated Death Row inmate fresh start

graduate in cap and gown leans on railing in front of brick building

Dec. 12, 2023 – DENTON – Ryan Matthews is ready to exhale. 

When he was 17 years old, Matthews was convicted of a murder he did not commit. He spent five years on death row in Louisiana before DNA evidence exonerated him in 2004. Nearly 20 years later, Matthews is ready to steer his own ship and take back a life that was nearly stolen from him. 

Matthews takes a big step toward charting his course when he graduates from Texas Woman’s on Dec. 15 with an MBA, which has an emphasis on business analytics.

“I have been so focused on my education,” Matthews said. “I can almost breathe a bit now. But not yet.”

Growing up, Matthews always had education in the back of his mind. His mother pushed his schooling; he knew it was important. But that focus on getting that education sharpened when he was released from prison.

“When I came home, I was 24 and I had no job history,” Matthews said. “A lot of the requirements for the jobs I had were no work experience, no schooling. At times, when I got on jobs, I was told I didn’t have the education requirements. That was another obstacle. So, I’m just trying to remove all the obstacles.”

graduate in cap and gown stands outside in front of trees and foliage

Matthews is so close, but he is still nervous.  

“I don’t know yet how to feel,” Matthews said. “I haven’t walked across that stage yet. It’s almost too good to be true. Thinking about what I come from and where I’m at now, it’s a lot. Every now and again, I sit back and try to reflect on it. I say, ‘wow, is this really happening?’ But, I try not to think too much. I don’t want to be stuck in that moment. I want to continue to move forward.”

Moving forward hasn’t always been easy. Shortly after being released from prison, his family was displaced because of Hurricane Katrina. But that did bring the Matthews family closer to Texas Woman’s, where his sister, Monique Lee-Coleman, earned her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, a program path she attributes to her brother.

She nudged him toward Denton, and while working nights as a machine operator, Matthews figured out a sleep schedule while going to school at TWU during the day. He graduated with a bachelor of applied arts and sciences degree in 2019.

Matthews returned to TWU for his MBA, thinking a graduate degree would make himself more marketable. Plus, his strict schedule of working full time at night while studying and resting during the day was almost routine. Sunday was his recharge day when he meditated and exercised.

TWU graduate in white sweatshirt leans in front of TWU fountain

Even though he regrets not being able to take advantage of all the resources TWU had to offer, he thinks he managed pretty well as a non-traditional student. He is looking ahead to a potential new career field and he has lined up a few interviews for banking jobs.  

Matthews admits he is highly critical of himself.

“I don’t want to let the people that supported me down,” Matthews said. “I don’t want to let the lawyers down. I was blessed to get this opportunity and I don’t want to squander it.”

Two people that will be cheering the loudest at his graduation are his mother and sister. 

They both have said he is their inspiration. Because of his experience, his mother, Pauline Matthews, is pursuing a degree in social work and his sister, Monique Lee-Coleman, is working toward her doctorate in family studies at TWU. Lee-Coleman's daughter, Ryen, is named after her brother and she is also a TWU student, pursuing a political science degree and a future career as a civil rights attorney.

“We were always close,” Matthews says about his family. “I was incarcerated, and they were too. They just weren’t behind the walls. I always had support from them.”

For a while, everything in Matthews’ life has revolved around education. So, now, in addition to building a new career, he is also thinking about traveling. He wants to go to Greece or Italy. 

He is thinking about doing more activism work as well. 

“I want to speak on it,” he said. “I want to be the voice for the people that can’t speak for themselves. By just telling them my story, I’m letting it exist. It’s not just in the movies. This happens in real life. We still have innocent people behind the walls.” 

Matthews is exhaling in his own way.

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Amy Ruggini
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Page last updated 1:41 PM, December 13, 2023