I have not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, but 30 felony convictions on my record. They all stemmed from a bank fraud scheme that I was involved in. The convictions include theft, forgery, and many counts of conspiracy to commit theft and forgery. Although I could be sitting in the same exact classroom as my peers, learning the same exact things, and pursuing the same exact degree, I knew we did not and would not have the same exact opportunities.
In addition to being a convicted felon, I had also been recently released from prison when I started college. It is possible to be a convicted felon without going to prison but it’s not possible to go to prison without being a convicted felon so this was an added aspect of my background that I had to deal with. I was scared for my professors to find out as well as for my peers to find out. Here I am, this 23-year-old big black guy fresh out of prison sitting right next to a 16-year-old white running start student and I am not sure if they would have felt uncomfortable had they known my background but I sure did. The most uncomfortable part was fear of being found out. Despite the fact that I had never hurt anyone in my life and was a genuinely good guy, I had a fear of being feared I’d say.
I was in classes with a very diverse group of people at the start. I would say they ranged in age from 16 to over 60 in some classes. There were people of many different ethnicities. I had a very strong feeling though that I was the only one who had just within a matter of months been released from prison. Later on once I decided that I would get my degree in alcoholism and drug abuse I ended up in classes with multiple other convicted felons. Some of which had served more time in prison than I had, some were arrested at an even younger ages and at least one served time for a violent crime involving a gun. That guy became one of my biggest inspirations as he had graduated from Pierce and went on to earn a Master’s degree at the University of Washington. He had also written a book that was published and featured on television in addition to creating an innovative youth program. He came back to Pierce because he was a licensed mental health counselor and he wanted to get a certificate in substance abuse. Chances are, especially at the community college level, that although you might feel like you are the only formerly incarcerated college student in any given class, there is someone in the room who has more in common with you than you think. Not everyone who has ever committed a crime has gotten caught and you would be surprised how many people you might encounter recognize the plethora of factors that play a role in who gets convicted for their crimes and who gets away with them.
Coming from a family like mine, I honestly didn’t know many people who had even enrolled in college. I had never been in any sort of professional setting. I speak Ebonics. My values were largely based on my upbringing. I had a lot of adjustments to make. One major thing I came to realize is that doing well in an academic setting did not at all have to mean giving up who I am. I came to realize that my background provided me with unique perspectives and insights in regards to so many different topics. I have taken several classes that have focused at times on topics that allowed me to pull from my own personal experiences in order to participate in classroom discussions and even write papers. I have received positive feedback from both professors and other students in regards to my classroom contributions and ability to introduce ideas and perspectives that they themselves would have never considered.
While my experiences being a felon on campus have not all be positive, the good by far outweighs the bad. You might need to develop thick skin in order to not take offense to things people may say about you or about people with your background. You have an opportunity to play a role in re-shaping the way people view formerly incarcerated college students.