As you prepare to graduate from the Prison University Project, what kind of legacy do you want to leave? How do you want your life to touch others in the College Program, at San Quentin, and in the larger community?
As the graduation ceremony approaches, I think about how all of my past failures are salvaged by one present success; achieving an AA Degree. The journey was long and laborious, but empowering. There were moments when I thought that I was not cut from the college cloth, that my capacity to learn new things was limited. Certain classes seemed too complicated for my simple mind. I was intimidated by both assignments and students. “You’re not smart enough,” the voice in my head would say. But the limit on learning is a self-placed barrier, something removable. I hope that my experience encountering higher education leaves students, whose minds are plagued with self-doubt like mine was, encouraged. That they too would embrace the struggle, and understand the importance of diligent study. Nobody is born with knowledge, it is something we all gain as we grow. Know that smart people are studied people.
What has been your favorite school assignment?
My favorite school assignment has been the essay. Formulating ideas and developing them on a page in a clear, cohesive, and thoughtful way is satisfying. Although the process is agonizing, it’s worth every written word, because you learn something with each paper, something you may have been completely unaware of. In English 204, I’ve learned that there is no essay that cannot be written. In English 101A: that if you allow your imagination to drive, you can always write something interesting. In Philosophy 217, Psychology 221, Sociology 230: that reasonable people with reasonable arguments will always be challenged by reasonable people with reasonable arguments, and that in the end, after weeks of toiling over a draft, somebody will not be persuaded. Writing essays builds character.
What piece of work are you most proud of?
There is no one piece of work that I’m most proud of. Everything that my teachers helped me accomplish had its moment. But the most recent moment was two semesters ago, when I was one paper away from graduation. As usual, I was having trouble clamping down on one idea-I had so many good ones. The subject was Psychology (Childhood Development), and my instructors were Maria Allis and Gail Fisher. Since it was my last class, I had a deep desire to finish strong. I wanted to go out with a bang so to speak, like Al Pacino in the 1983 film “Scarface.” But instead of being powered by cocaine, with machine guns blazing, I was being powered by caffeine, with pens blazing. So I thought about my friends serving life sentences for murders they committed as teens, and about how the decision to murder is related to a child’s psychosocial development. I felt good about the idea. I also felt like it was my duty and responsibility to shed more light on teen violence, since I have a direct connection to “juvenile lifers” at San Quentin. So I wrote about it. I finished the paper feeling like I did my community, a community that tends to be misrepresented, justice.
If you could share one piece of advice with incoming students, what would it be?
If I could share one piece of advice with incoming students, I would say challenge yourself. Take two, three, or even four classes if possible. Turn your prison bid into a university bid and don’t let your college experience stop there. Make a positive impact on your world; especially for the little ones who see you as a leader. Never be afraid to question or challenge your beliefs. Because in the end, what is true and good remains. Finally, things with worth, like gaining a college education, are never easy. But be encouraged because your reward is worth every bit of struggle.
Beyond completing your AA Degree, what goals have you set for yourself?
My AA Degree is the first step in a staircase of higher education. I dream of attending UC Berkeley for a BS in Chemistry-for now. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to make this dream of mine real, but I came this far and that in itself is mind blowing for me and everybody that I grew up with. It’s not going to be easy-nothing with value ever is. I was encouraged by an article that I read in the “New Yorker.” It was my story! If students overcame such an environment and went on to attend one of our country’s greatest universities, why not me?
What has been the most challenging part of being a college student?
The most challenging part of being a college student for me has been overcoming self doubt. Prison provides the space and the place for solitude-important for any student’s success-but if you doubt your ability to progress intellectually, college becomes more difficult. That’s why I found oral presentation so frightful. I felt like I’d be exposed for the fraud that I thought that I was. That the class would erupt in laughter as I made a fool out of myself, but that I couldn’t quit either because then I’d really be a fraud. I was stuck, and forced out of my comfort zone. So there I was, in English 101A, standing in one of the loneliest spaces of my life: up in front of the class. The last time I remembered speaking in front of a class was in a 9th grade social studies class, and I was horrible. Nevertheless, I committed, and I prepared. When it was over, the silence was interrupted by a standing ovation. In that moment, I knew that there was something special about me.
What does Liberal Arts Education mean to you? Why study liberal arts?
A Liberal Arts education is a window into the beauty, struggle, and cruelty of humanity’s will to endure. Through it, we can strive to be and do better. We can learn what it means to uphold and respect the beliefs of others, no matter how different or contrary they are to our own. A Liberal Arts education attempts to answer the question of how can we live long, peaceful lives in the presence of those we cherish.
What are you passionate about?
I am passionate about making a difference in someone else’s life, like the Prison University Project has made a difference in mine.
Are you involved in any activities outside of the Prison University Project? What are they, and why are they important to you?
I am currently the photographer for the San Quentin News-among other things that help to get our newspaper to the printing press. I’m also a part of the California Reentry Institute, a program sponsored by volunteer Collette Carroll. Myself and a group of guys help facilitate the program that is fixed on teaching emotional intelligence and life skills like resume writing and job interview preparation. I also represent the San Quentin 1000 Mile Club, whose central focus is on camaraderie and rehabilitation through running. June 19th is our 10 mile race,. The San Quentin Marathon is in November. Yoga has also been a part of me for the past three years, with Yogi James Fox, our teacher. But all of my progress hinges on a decision I made 12 years ago go to follow Christ. I would not be here today if it wasn’t for God’s loving presence that kept this 5’2’’ 125 lb. Mexican safe in a place where Mexicans “don’t!” walk the yard alone.
Who are the people in your life who have helped you succeed?
My mother and family are the ones that helped me succeed behind the walls. It was through their love and ability to see past my evil deeds that birthed in me a desire to do better. They went out of their way to make sure that I understood that even though I was alone in a cold cell, they were with me. It takes special people to inconvenience themselves on behalf of another. Especially one that disconnected himself from his family, like I did prior to my incarceration. Ma, I love you.
What are some words of wisdom, congratulations, or encouragement that you’d like to share with your fellow graduates?
We live together, we eat together, we laugh and cry together, it’s only fitting that we graduate together, now let’s tear down these walls together!