I pass by his empty bedroom and the pain hits me. Intense, excruciating pain, the kind that grips your heart and shoots all the way down to your toes. How come it still hurts so badly? It’s been almost 10 years. My son Noel is in prison, which is still hard to say. Life is different now. Time is measured with twenty minute phone calls. I hate seeing a missed phone call from him - was he calling about something urgent or just to say hello? I wanted to hear his voice and tell him I love him. I tell myself not to think about all the horrible things that can happen in prison, that maybe they’re not all true. I have learned to take it one day at a time. It has been 3,437 days!
The reality is that prison is a place for punishment and it punishes all of us. It isolates those inside making them feel helpless, hopeless and lost. Sometimes there is a shining light in that dark place. University Beyond Bars is one such shining light.
My name is Sherri Caldellis and I have PTG. It stands for Post Traumatic Growth. It means shifting your thinking and how you relate to the world after a period of traumatic suffering. You know you cannot return to the same life so you find a way to change that allows you to grow from your experiences.
Many of us experience a traumatic event. When my son Noel was sent to prison that was traumatic to my entire family. My husband suffers with PTSD. I am the lucky one with PTG. We are all in prison together, those inside and us outside.
I feel very fortunate that Noel is in Monroe Correctional Complex where the UBB program is offered. UBB has brought hope into an otherwise very grim place. Through UBB my son has earned his AA degree and is working on his B.A. UBB has not only provided him with an education but it has also provided me with a positive direction to funnel my energy in a meaningful way. For the past five years I have been involved with fundraising efforts for UBB and it has been some of the most rewarding work that I have done in my life.
UBB has created an environment where PTG is allowed to foster and grow. They have created a community inside of men who are committed to learning, to shifting their way of thinking, to helping each other, to breaking down barriers, and to working on positive things that are meaningful to them and their families.
These are some of the hardest working students you will find and I am proud to help support them in any way I can. Thank you for taking the time to hear a bit of my story. Thank you to everyone who supports this important program.
UBB's success can be measured by student numbers (students served, credits earned, degrees), but we also measure it by our students' stories of personal growth and achievement. For many of our students UBB is a lifeline in an otherwise dark place and we are often told that their time in class represents the only hours of the week in which their minds feel liberated. UBB provides freedom through education. Here are are few of their stories.
Jeff was the first UBB student to receive his Associate of Arts degree. While incarcerated, he was a UBB student, teaching assistant, and member of UBB's Prisoner Advisory Committee. He tutored students in our English Prep series, English Composition I and II, and creative writing, and worked closely with UBB instructors to help hone his skills as a peer editor and writing coach.
In 2014, he was released after serving almost 19 years. Jeff is now employed full-time and has already begun to volunteer for UBB on the outside to "give back to the program that has given me so much." We asked Jeff to describe his experience with UBB:
"Prison life, prior to the UBB, was a drab place. UBB has changed me, for the good, more than anything else since the Army. Both fundamentally changed me: one strengthened me physically and mentally, the other matured me socially, intellectually, and taught me how to think critically.
To quote Allan Bloom, 'Universities, rightly understood, are where community and friendship can exist in our times.' I will miss the UBB community terribly. I'm hopeful that this program continues to change lives for the better.
UBB is the best thing about prison - maybe the only good thing."
Steve started his involvement with UBB when he arrived at the prison in late 2010. At the time, he only had his GED which he had completed in 1995. (When Steve became homeless in 10th grade he dropped out of high school.) During his first semester with UBB, he completed two courses, and four years later, Steve's course history spans three pages: Spanish 111 and 112, Introduction to Astronomy, Oceanography, English Composition I and II, Political Science, Psychology, Statistics, Symbolic Logic, plus a variety of advanced writing courses. Today he is well on his way to earning an Associate of Arts degree. Steve is also a published writer who has won awards from PEN American Center.
"It's been said a thousand different ways that education changes lives. But it has saved mine. This isn't hyperbole, something I say to embellish what my education means, now that I know what one is. With every class I take, there is a sense of added distance between who I was and the person I am now."
On what a UBB scholarship means to Steve:
"A scholarship is a contract, a solemn agreement between UBB and the student to mutually invest in a future where one will become a productive member. The very concept of a future is a door newly opened to me, one that for the first time will not revolve. I believe college should be an "all-or-nothing" proposition and I will carry a full load because I am able to do so while maintaining a high GPA."
Steve's GPA is currently 3.9.
Danny transferred to WSR from Washington Corrections Center where he had been taking college classes through Centralia Community College. Once at WSR, he immediately enrolled in UBB, placing out of UBB's English and Math Prep and enrolling in credited coursework, including Oceanography 100 and Sociology 370. After earning his Associate degree, Danny plans to pursue a degree in engineering.
"I want to earn a college degree because it will give me the tools to succeed upon my release. I know I am using my time to build a foundation for my family, and I want to set an example for my daughter, Maliah, to whom I will always stress the importance of education."
When asked about the purpose of college in prison, Danny describes how higher education in prison does more than just confer a degree:
"While incarcerated, you are told where to be and when to be there. Taking college courses while incarcerated teaches academic discipline which can help you earn an honest living. It also teaches you responsibility, time management, and how to work with others. It demonstrates a commitment to rehabilitation, which once released, can help overcome the stigma of being a felon."
From the start Rudy excelled in UBB coursework, starting with the UBB College Prep series in his first two semesters. Since then Rudy has continued working toward his Associate of Arts degree with an emphasis in Social Sciences.
"Ultimately what I hope to accomplish as a graduate is to help break the cycle of failure. I want to use what I've learned to give back and build up my community."
To Rudy, the most important part of the degree is the impact it leaves on his family:
"The impact of a college degree on my life comes second to the impact I want it to have on my son's life. I want to pass down the gift of education to the younger generation. My son gives me the courage and motivation to do my best in school even when times are difficult. This is for him."
Prior to being imprisoned Lucas earned an Associate of Arts degree from community college by taking most of his classes at night while working full-time as a tile setter. At that time college was merely a means to an end. Then in 2010, he was “pressured” by a friend to join UBB; he started with Certificate Pathway and upper-division College Pathway classes, attending numerous Arts & Lecture series events, and he discovered something quite different:
"Not until being adopted into UBB while in prison was I able to recognize the interdependence of culture and capital, and see beyond the indoctrination of popular culture. I realized I could escape the stifling effects of prison via the classroom and the experience revealed education’s true value - as an end in itself, a gateway to freedom of mind. The yearning for material consumption dissipated and with the help of UBB, was soon replaced by a desire for knowledge.”
Lucas is now a lifelong learner focused on completing his bachelor’s degree.