Just a few years ago, Walter Fortson was serving time in prison for drug offenses.
Now, the 25-year-old Philadelphia native is an honors student in the School of Arts and Sciences and a recent recipient of an SAS Academic Excellence Award.
"This is like a gift from God," said Fortson, who was paroled in 2009. "I am cherishing every moment on campus; every assignment; every class."
Fortson's transformation from inmate to honor student was set in motion during his prison term — a time he devoted to personal reflection and spiritual growth.
But a pivotal moment came the day he met Donald Roden, a veteran Rutgers history professor, and a frequent visitor to the Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility where Fortson was serving his sentence.
Since 2005, Roden, working in close consultation with state correction officials as well as university faculty and staff, has helped 39 former inmates get admitted to Rutgers — following their release from prison — as full-time undergraduate students on the New Brunswick Campus.
"The day I met Professor Roden, I knew this was the road I was meant to be on," Fortson said. "He was really excited for me. He got my parents excited. He stood by me during the long process of filling out applications in longhand."
Roden, a faculty member at Rutgers since 1975, said he feels just as grateful. He first got involved in prison outreach in 2002, shortly after his mother died. She had worked as an adult literacy volunteer in urban community centers in Milwaukee.
"I get tremendous happiness from watching the students in this program succeed," he said. "They're an inspiration."
Roden initially started going to Mountainview to tutor inmates in remedial reading. But after he discovered that some inmates were getting their GEDs and taking courses through the county colleges, he began thinking of ways to build a bridge to Rutgers.
The current outreach effort is considered a pilot program. It has no permanent staff, or a website. But the number of students has been steadily growing, drawing the involvement of a larger portion of faculty, staff, and corrections officials, and raising hopes it could become a permanent program similar to ones at San Francisco State University, City College of New York, and Bard College.
"Slowly and surely, we hope to proceed in that direction," Roden said. "As members of a civil society and a university dedicated to the principles of diversity, we all share a huge stake in the success of the Mountainview students."
The inmates Roden works with are typically locked up for nonviolent crimes, and serve their time in state facilities for younger populations. Most were in Mountainview, but some come from other facilities, including the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.
Although Roden typically meets them during incarceration, they must be released, either on parole or living in a halfway house, before they can be accepted and begin taking classes at the university. Once enrolled, the new students live off campus in their own housing and pay for their tuition either through their own means or financial aid. They must also maintain good academic standing. If they withdraw for any reason, they must attend a county college for at least one semester before they can seek readmission.
One Mountainview student, Christopher Lee, has already graduated with highest honors and two more students in the program are on schedule to graduate in the spring.
Some don't make it. Since the start, 14 students have withdrawn from school for a range of reasons, including poor academic performance. Five of them were granted leaves of absence and are enrolled in community college, with most of them doing well, Roden said.
Meanwhile, those who are at Rutgers — there are 23 this year — are leaving a strong impression on the faculty and staff who know them.
"I love my Mountainview students — they're the best," said Vicki Brooks, assistant dean for transfer and nontraditional students, in the School of Arts and Sciences.
Brooks, who meets with the students regularly to discuss their academic progress, said the students are extremely polite, respectful, and demonstrate a singular drive to succeed.
"They bring something to the table that nobody else is bringing," she said. "It's that quality that they used to get through the experience they went through. They bring it, and they apply it to their lives as students."
Chris Agans, acting director of Student Support Services, agrees. Agans and his staff work with the students to help them prepare for the demands of academic life.
"These students are sitting in the front row of their classes, they're raising their hands, they're seeing their professors during office hours," Agans said. "They see this as a second chance and they jump in with both feet."
Donald Harris, a 22-year-old from Long Branch who served time in Mountainview on a robbery charge, said that once he found about the Rutgers program, he made a vow to his mother and to himself he would attend the university and graduate.
"I told my mother: ‘I am going to go to Rutgers when I get out of here, and nothing or nobody is going to stop me,'' he said. "I made a very conscious decision that I was not going to throw my life away. The only way to escape prison is through education."
Harris, a junior, is majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing, and plans to pursue an MFA.
Roden searches for inmates with a high likelihood of succeeding in school, and then shepherds them through the process, which, because they have felony convictions, includes a hearing before a review board at Rutgers.
He finds potential students through several sources: county college coordinators who teach classes in prison; correction officers; and an assessment center, Talbot Hall in Kearny, where inmates go near the conclusion of their sentence.
"The people we identify as potential students are those that the Department of Corrections is most proud of," Roden said.
Terrell Blount, a 26-year-old native of Newark, graduated from high school, but rather than pursue higher education, stuck around in Newark and eventually became incarcerated after a fumbled robbery attempt.
He took classes through Mercer County College during his sentence and learned computer skills during his job assignment.
"I was slowly but surely preparing myself for Rutgers, although at the time, I didn't know about the program," Blount said. "I just didn't like the future that I saw for myself. I had to make a change and I had to stay active."
He is now a junior in the School of Communication and Information, where he is majoring in journalism and media studies.
"I feel that for the first time in many years, the door is wide open, and I can feel the sense of possibility," Blount said. "I am trying not to limit myself anymore. I am actually eager to learn."
SOURCE: RUTGERS FOCUS