by Al Rice
In 2014, I was lucky to be one of 30 chosen to participate in the Incarcerated Student Program provided by Feather River College. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was a chance to earn a college degree while in prison, and to do it, essentially, for no cost to me or to my family. No cost, that is, other than the effort put forth by me to do the work required. And there was lots of work to do, for Feather River College has a rigorous curriculum. The question was could I do the work? My history did not provide a definitive answer.
I should have graduated high school in 1975, but I did not have the required math credits, and my other grades were marginal at best. My counselor said I would have to go to summer school, but this would mean a delay to my enlistment in the U.S. Marines. I opted to take the GED instead, though I barely passed. Fast-forward to 2014: I felt ill-prepared for the level of work required to earn an Associate of Arts degree. Yet, I was determined to try. After 28 years in prison, I had little to show beyond good behavior and a good work record. A college degree would be an accomplishment of which I could be proud. This was my motivation to learn.
The most important lessons I learned that first semester were not in English or math. No, they were in self-discipline and time management. With a demanding full-time job, a compulsive television habit, and a time-consuming exercise routine, I had trouble finding time to study. Something had to change. I concluded that college was the most important thing, and this made the needed adjustments easier to make. I found a less demanding job, cut my television to two hours each night, shortened my exercise routine. While I gained more time to study, I also gained weight. Nevertheless, with this new perspective came a desire to excel. Still, it was a struggle.
An avid reader my whole life, I was prepared for the amount of reading required in my classes. However, I was not prepared for the level of writing these courses demanded, both in quantity and in quality. Yet I persevered and received A’s in 24 of 27 classes. Math was a different story. Algebra was like a foreign language to me, and statistics was something from another planet. Somehow, with the help of some great classmates and excellent tutors, I pulled B’s. In the end, it was all worth it.
In May of 2018, I completed the work needed to earn an Associate of Arts degree in Sociology (transfer degree). My GPA was 3.88. For this, I earned highest honors and received membership in the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. Beyond bragging rights, Phi Theta Kappa offers scholarships up to $2,500 for continuing studies. This opens the possibility of going for a bachelor’s degree in the future.
On October 5, 2018, I walked across the stage to receive my degree. My mother was there to watch her eldest child graduate from college. After the birth of my daughter, it was the proudest moment of my life, and my greatest accomplishment. I believe my mother was proud, too.
None of this would have been possible were it not for the staff of Feather River College, to include Dr. Joan Parkin and Kelly Conner-Hall. Especially Kelly, who was instrumental in helping me to stay on track and to schedule my classes to take advantage of those offered. In addition, I wish to extend my appreciation to the FRC instructors who devoted time and labor to help me exceed all expectations of a college career. Finally, a special thanks to VEP Instructor Mr. T. Parker.
Republished from “Perspectives from the Cell Block: An Anthology of Prisoner Writings” – edited by Joan Parkin in collaboration with incarcerated people from Mule Creek State Prison.