Rutgers offers formerly incarcerated student a path to life of purpose
When Lavonta Bass takes his seat in a classroom at Rutgers Business School, he’s not only there to absorb knowledge and pass exams, he’s also there to redeem a second chance he’s received to pursue a life of purpose.
The New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) offered Bass a chance to use his time in prison to learn, pursue an associate degree, and then work toward a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University-Newark.
For Bass, the education offers a path that is both promising and pragmatic. “I take full responsibility for what I’ve done. That’s what prison is supposed to do. But after doing all the prison time, I have no 401K, no social security,” said Bass, who became a Rutgers Business School senior in September. “If I get a college education, I give myself an opportunity to have a fighting chance of getting a job.”
Bass grew up in Linden, raised by a single mother whose care and discipline ensured that he graduated from high school. Not long afterward, though, he found himself more influenced by individuals who would lead him into trouble. An arrest resulted an 18-year-long prison sentence. “Some forces are stronger than a mother’s push,” he said.
He had served eight years when NJ-STEP was introduced. He was working as a teacher’s assistant and reading everything he could, from Shakespeare’s plays and Nietzsche’s philosophy to Bloomberg’s business news. When he signed up to begin classes, he got pushed up on the waiting list because of his education and his role helping to teach other prisoners.
The NJ-STEP initiative is a partnership between the New Jersey Department of Corrections, the state Parole Board and a group of colleges and universities in the state, including Rutgers, to provide incarcerated individuals with the ability to work toward a degree. The partnership also assists students like Bass transition to college life when they are released from prison to live in halfway houses.
Rutgers University currently has 55 students working on degrees through the NJ-STEP Program. That includes 31, like Lavonta, who are pursuing degrees at Rutgers University-Newark. Across the university’s three campuses – New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden – more than 137 formerly incarcerated students have earned bachelor’s degrees.
According to data collected by NJ-STEP, 90 percent of those 137 students are employed full time within a year of graduating. The jobs they fill are in private industry, government, healthcare, higher education, and non-profits. Many chose to follow a more entrepreneurial path, creating businesses in building management, mentoring, fitness, social media, and other fields.
Bass credits an older prisoner, Jon Johnson, with taking an interest in him and encouraging him to read. The two men spoke regularly about books, news, philosophy, and mythology. In a phone call, Johnson said he knew Bass had potential to be something more.
“There was a certain discipline that I saw demonstrated day after day,” Johnson said in a telephone interview. “He’s built of something decent. He’s capable of achieving anything.”
As a result of his constant reading and conversations with Johnson, Bass said he became interested in politics and business. “I’ve always had an affinity for things that are organized,” he said. Among the things he learned was the principle of Rapid Continuous Improvement, which he began applying to his own life. “I became more productive each day,” he said. He earned an associate degree in liberal arts, finishing as valedictorian.
In August, Bass, now living in transitional housing run by the state Department of Corrections, started attending classes at Rutgers University-Newark. He is studying political science, and at Rutgers Business School, he is majoring in management and leadership.
He is adjusting to changes that are both exciting and challenging. He handles his own course scheduling now and said he struggles with a sense of self-doubt, wondering if he will be able to keep up and whether he really belongs. “With fortitude, I will get through it,” he said.
He is currently working as a consultant with the New Jersey Small Business Development Corp. (SBDC), assisting program coordinators who are training prisoners interested in starting their own businesses when they re-enter society. He is also hoping to participate in the RU Flourishing Program run by the Rutgers Advanced Institute for the Study of Entrepreneurship and Development.
His role at the SBDC is to help its staff understand the society inside prison. Technology, for instance, has evolved so rapidly that prisoners require an acclimation. Even the dependency on email as a form of communication is something that prisoners may be unaware after years in prison, Bass said.
Bass realizes his past will always remain with him. Prospective employers will do background checks. “Doors will be closed in my face,” he said, “but I will always be able to go to the next door.”
“I’m never going back,” he said. “I have to keep pushing forward.”
- Susan Todd
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