The youth-written stories in YCteen give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Jailhouse Scholar
I’m using my time to prepare for a medical career
N.M.
headshot

When I first got incarcerated, I was in despair. I had just finished high school and was on the verge of starting college at age 16 when I received an eight-year sentence for attempted murder. (New York is one of two states that automatically tries 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.) I am serving that sentence in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in upstate New York.

I thought I had lost my opportunity for an education, but it turns out that Bedford has an arrangement with professors from an accredited private college, Marymount Manhattan College. Those professors come up and teach classes five nights a week. They are typical college classes—sociology, psychology, business, philosophy, and we only have to pay $5 a class. The classes are the same as those in the Marymount curriculum outside of prison. Through the program, you can earn a BA (bachelor’s degree) in prison.

Marymount’s prison program is a blessing for everyone like me who thought they would have to give up on their educations while in prison—and for those who never thought college was an option. Not only does it give prisoners a way to be productive and work on their goals while incarcerated, it also gives them the opportunity to get a college degree they might not have been able to afford on the outside. That helps prevent recidivism: Feeling “professional” makes me feel better about myself.

Of course, being in prison still makes things difficult. Outside, I could have finished my undergraduate degree in four years, but in here it could take me eight years.

I was happy to take advantage of these almost-free classes, but I want to be a doctor, and I need certain pre-med science classes. Marymount offers only one science class—nutrition. Then I heard that someone in my prison earned her master’s degree by mail, from a correspondence college. I asked my parents to look for a college correspondence course for me that had science classes. They looked and looked to no avail. It seemed that all of the programs were online, and inmates don’t get access to the internet for security reasons.

One day at the prison mosque where I work, one of my Muslim sisters mentioned a college correspondence program specifically designed for inmates. Then someone in my anger management program gave me the brochure for the school, Ohio University.

Correspondence Courses

I asked my parents to check it out and make sure it was accredited and not a fraud. Though it was a lot more expensive than the Marymount program, it checked out. The program offers associate’s, bachelor’s, and paralegal degrees to incarcerated people. They send you new books and postage and school supplies for the price of the class. Each class costs $1,500 to $2,000, depending on the number of credits. Prisoners cannot get financial aid, so I am lucky my dad could afford the tuition. My whole life, he’s talked about the importance of education.

When you complete the degree, your diploma says “Ohio University,” not “Ohio University College Program for the Incarcerated.” Basically inmates take the same classes as the students on campus in Ohio, just through the mail instead of in class.

I was excited to start, but enrollment was not quick. It took eight months to send my high school diploma to them and fill out all the necessary paperwork about the billing. My parents receive a bill right before I start a new class, and the semester begins whenever the payments clear and the school sends me the syllabus and lessons. Semesters last eight months from that point. After I complete a lesson, I send it back to be graded by my instructor. I mail or, through my parents, email the instructor if I need help. Once I get that grade, I send in the next lesson. Fortunately, I can use the prison computer to type my papers for both schools. That computer also has an encyclopedia installed on it.

image by YC-Art Dept

Now, in addition to taking some courses from Marymount, I was also working toward a BS from Ohio. They had overlapping requirements, so I took what I could at Marymount and transferred those credits to Ohio.

The Marymount classes are held from 6:30 to 9 p.m., because the professors teach at their campus during the day. There are 20 students in each class. The teachers are nice, lenient, and compassionate. They challenge us with hard work but they understand the lack of resources in prison.

In my first year, I took U.S. History from Marymount, and Spanish, human biology, astronomy, sociology, logic, and English from Ohio. Taking most of my classes via correspondence strengthened my self-discipline; I didn’t have anyone pushing me to get my work done, so I learned to push myself.

There’s a lot of reading in all my classes; each homework assignment has 50 to 100 pages of reading. Taking five classes that I needed to ace was overwhelming at first. I lost sleep and sometimes had meltdowns, where I cried or was rude to people.

But I have learned a tremendous amount about myself. I tend to procrastinate with my outside classes because I have eight months to do it, while Marymount kept me focused with weekly assignments. The big difference between correspondence and in-person classes is the healthy competition I have with the students in the classroom. I find that motivating. I’ve also learned that I like learning. School keeps me focused on my career goals and has brought out my better qualities.

A Third College

Recently, I got accepted to a third college—an elite liberal arts school called Bard College that has a special program for inmates. I had to pass tests and interviews, and Bard covers all the costs. I was recently moved to a minimum security section of Bedford Hills, and the prison lets attending classes count as my work. So I will get paid $4 every two weeks to go to college five days a week. It certainly beats working in the kitchen! I can get my associate’s degree from Bard, and I want to keep working toward a BS from Ohio.

I’ve only been in the Bard program for a month, but I’m already inspired and engaged. My Bard classes make me think hard and allow me to bring my unique self into my learning. The work is intense and challenging, and I feel like it’s already made me a better person. The teachers make me feel like an active member of society who can effect change in the world.

I’ll be 23 when I get out of prison. When I go home, I hope I’ll have my bachelor’s degree and be ready to go to medical school and get my career started. So far, my GPA is 3.9. I’m also studying some science on my own: My parents bought me a Kaplan book to help prepare for the MCATs (Medical College Admissions Test) and I’m working my way through that.

My brother is starting medical school soon, and my cousin is a doctor. I talk to them about the process of becoming a doctor. I know it is a long shot with a felony, but I’m not giving up. My father always told me, “Knowledge is your capital. No one can take it from you.” I believe that more than ever since I started the Bard program.

I want to aim high in life spiritually and mentally and have a career that will let me be of service. I came to prison for trying to take someone’s life, and I want to be a guardian and protector of life now. It would be recompense for the damage I’ve done.

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(FCYU-2016-10-28)

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