Returning citizens face numerous barriers to education. Can schools help them succeed?
Education is one of the major roads to success. But for many former prisoners, all they see are roadblocks. A lack of support from friends or family, difficulty with social interaction, academic skill level, finances—these are just some of the obstacles to education faced by returning citizens.
Prison Fellowship spoke with Karen Swanson, director of the Billy Graham Center's Institute for Prison Ministries at Wheaton College, about how colleges and universities can extend a hand to former prisoners looking to further their education. Here are five tips on how to welcome returning citizens on campus.
1. KNOW WHY YOU'RE DOING IT
Before getting started, it's helpful to articulate why you're interested in helping returning citizens. For instance, many institutions are opening up to former prisoners as a demographic because of decreasing enrollment. American culture is also awakening to the need to unlock second chances for former prisoners through efforts like Second Chance™ Month, which was supported this year by the White House, 23 states, and more than 300 organizations. For faith-based institutions, it can be a chance to put their values into practice.
"For Christian colleges, it's missional to be welcoming, to not keep the stigma on people," says Karen. "It also helps the people on campus to mature about their thinking about the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated persons. It can stretch the people on campus."
2. FORM AN ADVISORY COMMITTEE
The next thing to do if you want to welcome former prisoners to your campus is get "buy-in at all levels," Karen says. There are a few reasons for this. First, welcoming prisoners can be a cultural change for an institution that affects everyone, from professors to students to academic counselors. Your community needs to understand why your institution wants to welcome returning citizens.
To get that buy-in, Karen suggests forming an advisory committee that does two main things: 1) plan for how to best serve former prisoners who become students, and 2) cast vision throughout the organization. The committee can include people like the dean of student life, two faculty members, alumni who have a criminal record, the head of financial aid, or the dean of admissions.
3. DETERMINE ENROLLMENT CRITERIA
With the committee's help, you'll next want to settle on the enrollment criteria for returning citizens. Part of Karen's job is overseeing the Colson Scholarship, named after Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson, for people with a felony to attend Wheaton college. But, Karen says, "the academic requirements should be the same as everybody else."
4. ASSESS RETURNING CITIZENS' NEEDS
When enrolling former prisoners at your school, Karen suggests a case management approach to assessing each individual's needs:
- Do these new students need counseling?
- Do they need academic support for them to be successful?
- Do they have computer skills?
- Do they have a high school background or GED?
- Where are they emotionally and spiritually?
- Do they have a healthy way of dealing with stress without going back into an addiction?
- Where are they going to live?
"We provide access to counseling services, study skills, tutors, and then we also have a mentor, who can be a chaplain or faculty or staff member," Karen says about the Colson scholarship program at Wheaton.
5. PUT YOURSELF IN THEIR SHOES
To truly welcome anyone, you need to consider what they're thinking and feeling, and what they've experienced. "I try and treat them just like I would any other student on campus," Karen says. "I don't announce who they are to their professors or peers. I allow them to reveal who they are to whoever they want, whenever they want."
She also suggests having more than one former prisoner enrolled at a time so they have a support person there. Someone on the school staff can coordinate social events or dinners to help ensure the students feel connected to each other and the school. And be honest with returning citizens. Some careers will be challenging for them because of their criminal record. Make sure their academic advisors work with them to identify career tracks and possible hurdles.
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