Student Voice: The Pell Grant Gave Me a Second Chance

I was sitting on the edge of my cot surrounded by thick concrete and rusted paint-chipped bars that kept me caged in like an exotic pet. My cell was the size of a parking spot. If I stretched out my limbs, each would extend to the corners of my confined living quarters. I could barely yawn without knocking some object to the ground.  I was trying to wrap my mind around spending the next 16 years of my life in prison. A human being is not supposed to live this way. I realized that I needed to pay attention to the wellbeing of my mind or else I would lose it. Thanks to Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison Program I started a path to an associate’s degree because Hudson Link was fortunate enough to be one of the participating educational organizations that was awarded the Second Chance Pell. 

When I first enrolled in college, it wasn’t because I had some burning desire to learn. The truth is, I was bored. Prison is one really long day repeated over and over again. While I wasn’t initially excited about attending school as an adult,  I soon began looking forward to class. I began to understand from the sociology and psychology classes I took the impact that my environment had on my young cognitive development. I discovered words like “trauma” and “hypervigilance” and began reflecting on my own life and what I have experienced. I wasn’t aware that what I saw growing up was traumatic. I didn’t realize I was in pain. But the more I learned the more I healed. And this impacted my self-esteem. I never imagined as a teen I would go to college. My friends and I never had dreams of living on campus and attending a prestigious university like Columbia.  People expected for our lives to be cut short with candles and flowers to mark the spot where our dead bodies had fallen. College was never an option for me. Yet, here I am not only going to college but excelling. 

Thanks to the Second Chance Pell Program, college gave me the confidence to return to society prepared for adversity. It taught me how to find answers to questions that perplexed me. Many job applications are now digital and can be extremely confusing and intimidating for someone with no computer skills. If not for my education and support of family and friends, I probably would have thrown in the towel and took to a path of crime. The Pell Grant allowed me to receive an education that mentally and emotionally prepared me for reentry back into a society that isn’t always welcoming for people like me. With this education came options that will prevent me from reaching moments of desperation. Without an education, it would be a lot easier for me to pick up a gun again and navigate the familiar sewers of the streets than to face  being turned away from every job interview after a background check is done.

Stakeholders from families to legislators must understand that society does not have a public safety tool as effective against recidivism than higher education in prison. The average recidivism rate for someone without a college degree is 76.6 percent; for those with an associate’s degree that percentage significantly drops to 13.7 percent. Bachelor’s degree holders drop to 5.6 percent, and for those who continue their education even further, the recidivism rate is so low that it is non-existent. To the pessimist who holds the position that criminals should not receive free education on their tax dollars, I say this: over 90 percent of all incarcerated people in this country will return to society. They will be thrust back into a world that they have been far removed from, in some cases, for decades. What do you think will be the outcome of someone not having an employable skill or a college degree? What do we expect from these human beings who reenter society with unresolved trauma and are unemployed with no place to live? Desperation happens, and desperation has no moral compass. As a society, we must take responsibility for each other, or all risk being impacted by our indifference. However, what you won’t see is my desperation, and we should all tip our hats to the Pell Grant for that.