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

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From Inmate to College Student

Throughout my life, my family has always been in financial crisis.

My mother died of cancer when I was 11, and after that, there was even less money for my father to take care of my brother and me.

When I was 13, my father, brother, and I lived in a homeless shelter. My father eventually found an apartment in Queens, New York, but there were still nights I had nothing to eat.

In middle school, things stabilized, but I noticed that other kids had nicer clothes than I did. I felt inadequate, and I felt different because my mother had died. I made up for it by being smart. All the cool kids who dressed nice came to me for help in class. This made me feel good about myself, and gave me a reason to excel in school. My mother had always told me that life is hard without an education and encouraged me to do well in school.

In freshman algebra, when I realized I was good in math, I decided I wanted to be an accountant. I figured I would apply my math skills to real-life situations. I wanted to help people manage their money and invest to make more. In addition, an average CPA salary is $65,000 per year. Knowing that I could make plenty of money doing something I enjoyed sparked my dream and kept me focused on school, particularly math.

However, after I turned 15, I did not want to keep going without the nice things my classmates had. The weekly allowance of $5 my father gave me wasn’t enough to buy the expensive things I wanted, like Nike sneakers.

Maybe because I had to grow up without the nourishment of motherly love, I badly wanted nice clothes and money. The girls in high school liked the boys with that luxury. One girl named Lynda turned me down after she saw me with a pair of cheap sneakers. She simply laughed when I asked her out, and the next day I saw her with a boy who was wearing expensive Jordans.

Sent Upstate

I continued to do well academically, but I missed my mother and I began to fight a lot. Anger and jealousy toward kids with nice things built up within me.

When I was 15, I stole a Play Station Handheld from a kid on the subway platform, and got caught. As punishment, family court sent me to a residential treatment facility (RTC) in upstate New York. After serving 12 months, the RTC, Graham Windham, discharged me from living on their campus. I decided to remain at the school there as a day student. I took a train up every day from my father’s house in Queens. At Graham, I could finish high school in three years instead of four. I could also focus more because the classes were smaller.

Though I received abundant help from many supportive staff members at Graham, I remained emotionally damaged. I still wanted to dress nicer than I could afford.

image by Percy Tejeda

I also felt angry because I was a good kid, but I never felt any recognition for my hard work in school. My mother used to go out and buy me whatever I wanted whenever she noticed me improving and excelling in school. So I missed her whenever I got a good grade.

All the anger and jealousy led me to do more rebellious things, one of which landed me in jail for four months. I would rather not go into the details, but it was grand larceny, and I was remanded to Riker’s Island prison.

School in Prison

When I first reached Riker’s, it was December 2010. I was supposed to be finishing my senior year at Graham and graduating in June, but now I had screwed all that up. I had no idea when I would be going back home because my sentencing date was not until April 2011. Therefore, I entered a GED program in Riker’s.

The program required you to take three classes: math, English, and writing. Because I was 16, I was in an adolescent classroom. Guest speakers often spoke to us about school outside of jail. They wanted to encourage inmates to go back to school following their release.

Sometimes I did not even want to listen. When I heard their speeches, feelings of guilt and regret about being arrested, and possibly forfeiting my chance to enter college early would rise within me. I would get angry and sometimes talk loudly during class or pick on kids who were new. When I disrupted the class, the corrections officers supervising the students removed me from class and placed me in isolation—a small, square room with no window. Being there was lonely and boring, and it made the day go by even more slowly.

I began thinking about how I could avoid ever sitting in prison again. The answer was patience, which, ironically, I gained from spending four months in a cell. I had to wait on the corrections officers for everything at Rikers. I had to wait for chow, I had to wait for the GED program, and I had to wait for TV time. Over time, I got used to it. That’s when I realized, no matter how hard things get, I always have something to go after. As long as I keep doing well in school, I always have a greater future to seek.

My time in the prison’s GED program also gave me a chance to expand my vocabulary. The reading and writing classes gave us SAT-based passages and comprehension questions, which built on the work I had been doing at Graham.

Second Chance

In April, I got the good news that my sentence was four months jail time and five years probation. I had already served almost four months, so I’d be free in a few weeks. My lawyer told me my sentence was short in part because I had done so well at Graham. I had told the judge that I wanted to finish high school at Graham and get a real diploma, and she liked that.

When I arrived back at Graham I felt like a young child impatient for Christmas. When I finally sat in my normal classroom again, I ripped open every book as if it were a present.

image by Percy Tejeda

Studying while incarcerated had been easy because it made time go faster. Back home, I stayed in the habit and studied U.S. history, chemistry, and English six or more hours a night. (Those are the topics covered in the Regents exams, which you need to graduate in New York.) I worried I might not graduate on time, and then regretted, again, the mistake that had landed me in Riker’s. But this time, I used those feelings to make me work harder.

All my hard work paid off. I earned a 75 in both chemistry and English and an 89 on the U.S. history Regents test. I graduated in June 2011, and I felt so proud.

The College Search

Since I missed those months of school, I was late applying to college. In May 2011, a month after leaving prison, I enrolled for the fall semester in a community college in upstate New York, 164 miles away. Dorm housing was limited and the school placed me on a waiting list. Three weeks before the fall semester started, the school notified me that no dorm rooms had opened up and might not until October. I obviously could not commute 164 miles, so I withdrew from classes.

Dropping those classes made my goal of graduating college feel further away, but I applied for the spring semester at another school outside the city. I took the long train ride up there seven times to ensure my enrollment. I interviewed there in December, and two weeks later, I got a letter. I opened it full of hope, but the letter said that the college would not admit me because I was on probation. My probation officer has to visit my residence every month, and they did not want a probation officer in their dorms.

I felt despair, desperation, and more guilt at how I had messed up. But that very week, my father told me about a college in New York City known for its business and criminal justice programs. Although my father has been by my side supporting me, I did not expect him to know about a school, especially a business college. He has not attended school since the 11th grade. However, his friend at work has a daughter that attends this school and told him about it. The school’s admissions materials say that 90% of their 2010 graduates now have full-time jobs.

Moving Forward

As I began the admissions process at this third college, I felt much more confident due to my experience at the previous two schools. I’d gotten comfortable filling out all the enrollment, housing, and financial aid paperwork, and I understood the process. Plus, I got outstanding scores on the admissions test and got enough financial aid to afford school without having to get a job. My good scores also allowed me to start two months before the actual semester with condensed classes that award credits in a shorter time than regular-semester classes.

As I finally close in on my college dreams, I try not to let things get to me easily anymore. I’ve learned to worry less about my social status amongst my peers or what I’m wearing. It helps that I have a future to look forward to now.

The fact that I went from a jail cell to college in one year makes me proud and confident that I will do well in college and become an accountant. The road to college was not easy. A lot of studying enabled me to graduate high school early, despite four months of incarceration. In addition, my desire to be financially independent and to have the things I want helps me focus on my success. I still want the nice clothes, but I can wait to buy them with my accountant’s salary.

My good grades have remained my salvation through all my wrongdoings. I could have avoided jail by simply staying patient and waiting for my gratification. Instead, I departed from my road to success a couple times—and I was lucky that the judge appreciated my school achievements. I feel blessed and lucky to realign with my path toward becoming a CPA.

Worried that your past will prevent you from getting into college? Read "If You Have a Criminal Record..."

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