Growing up in a low socioeconomic area in Phoenix, Arizona, surrounded by gangs, violence, and drugs, I never thought that college was a place for me. Instead, as a teen, I envisioned myself selling drugs, robbing people, and spending most of my days in prison. So when I was 20 years old and was sentenced to 10 and a half years in the Arizona Department of Corrections, it was not unexpected.
At the time of my incarceration, I had three children and a fourth on the way. I often thought about them while I was incarcerated and pondered the effect of my absence, as well the role I wanted to have in their lives. I never believed that a relationship could not be forged between us, and I wanted to be an active father and a good example for them. After three years in maximum security, where I was placed for a riot I was forced to participate in, I returned to the general population.
Going from 23-hour lockdown and meals coming to your cell to being allowed to walk around and pick up your meals was a world of difference—and one that ultimately led me to college. After leaving the chow hall one day, I noticed a flyer on the prison education department’s window about Rio Salado College’s Re-Entry Program. I found out I was eligible and enrolled.
I started by taking an English class, which allowed me to express all the thoughts I had about the reading I had done in maximum security. This outlet proved to be life-changing because the positive feedback from my instructor gave me the confidence I needed to do more.
When I was released in December 2017, I enrolled at Rio Salado to continue my education. This was a major decision for me because I was also learning how to function outside of prison. I got a job at a stucco plant working over 50 hours a week, was granted full custody of two of my children, and complied with my parole officer’s demands.
In 2019, I communicated with a relative who was incarcerated, which was a parole violation. That sent me back to prison for three months and forced me to pause my education. I had to start all over financially when I got out, but this time, I knew what I had to do to succeed, rather than learning as I went in 2017 and 2018.
I worked overtime at the stucco plant and as a day laborer to make sure I could buy my kids clothes for the new school year, which started two months after I was released. Because I went to prison, I had to withdraw from school, which stalled my grant opportunities, but after a few months of being out, I saved enough money to re-enroll.
This time around, I was proactive at school! I broadened my network and positioned myself as a leader at Rio and in my community. I served as a student senator for the Maricopa County Community College District in 2020-2021 and am currently the Arizona Regional Development Officer for Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, a member of the Maricopa Council of Black American Affairs, the Rio Salado College advocate for the Computing Alliance of Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and a member of the Arizona Department of Education’s Indian Education Advisory Council.
I currently have a 4.0 GPA and Level l and II certifications in addiction and substance use disorders, and I am working toward two associate degrees. I’ve gotten this far in large part because I’ve been able to balance taking classes with working full-time, raising my children, and pursuing extracurriculars. Rio Salado’s online options and flexible course schedules have been crucial, allowing me to continue my education even after the COVID-19 pandemic hit and my wife lost her job.
My plan is to get a bachelor’s degree—perhaps even a doctorate one day. I know that getting my education will help me support my community and make it better for my children, and I feel a profound responsibility to do that. My path hasn’t been easy, but I’m fueled by the sense of pride and confidence that I felt when I started taking classes in prison and realized what I was truly capable of.
Ultimately, if you want to accomplish anything, whether it’s an education or something completely different, there are going to be challenges. But you have to find a way to keep moving forward. Even when you don’t know how to make everything work, keep going and you’re going to figure it out. Rio Salado College has been so helpful to me in figuring it all out, but there is support out there for all of us, whatever our previous life circumstances, current challenges, and future goals are.
Cordero Holmes is a student at Rio Salado College in Tempe, Arizona. He previously shared his story at a convening of university presidents hosted by the Presidents Forum, of which Rio Salado College is a member.