Growing Together: Enrolling and Completing a Correspondence Course Make Student and Educator Grow in Unexpected Ways

About six months ago a gentleman from my housing unit, here at FCI Petersburg, earned his GED.  He was very proud of this accomplishment -- as was I -- and wanted desperately to continue on with his studies.  The gentleman had heard that I wrote a book about prison education -- Education Behind Bars: A Win-Win Strategy for Maximum Security -- so he came to me to find information regarding correspondence programs open to inmates.  We discussed his interests, aspirations, and financial backing.

To my surprise, this man was interested in becoming a veterinary assistant/technician.  This surprised me because he honestly didn't act or seem like someone who cared about animals; not that animal lovers look any certain way.  To tell you the truth, he's one of the loud and obnoxious ones in my housing unit.  So, I was surprised in his interest in continuing his education.  Those who act the way he does typically are more focused on less productive habits in prison.  Needless to say, I was enthralled with his aspiration.

Right off the top of my head I was able to name two schools who offered this kind of career program: Penn Foster Career School and Stratford Career Institute.  I located their pages in {Education Behind Bars} and made copies of them for the man.  He was thrilled.

We spent around an hour discussing how correspondence programs work within the constraints of the Federal Bureau of Prison's policy and practice.  By the time we were done, he was ready to go.  He left my cell and immediately called his family.  He asked them to go to each school's website and request for their enrollment information to be mailed to him.

Several minutes after getting off the phone he did something very foreshadowing.  He came back and asked what he should put in a letter to each school when requesting their information.  While I told him the answer to his question, I noted that if his family had already contacted them, the school would send him the requested information.  Regardless, he sent off a letter to each school, too.  I suppose you can't fault a student for being excited about a new course of study.  In this student's case, a completely new level of study.

One of the directions I gave him was to speak with the college coordinator in our prison's Education Department so she could input his information into her records.  This way he'd be on the correspondence course approved list and the mail room would accept his school books.  He did so, but came back with some odd information.

The new college coordinator (our fourth in the last two years) told him that the Penn Foster Career School does not provide courses through the correspondence methodology.  This I know to be incorrect since I had recently completed a course of study through them and had been in contact with the school concerning some of my prison education advocacy.  I informed the man of this, but he just wouldn't listen.  I also shared that Penn Foster was my pick of the two schools and presented my rational, but he didn't seem to care to hear this.

At this point I thought that my job was done.  Unfortunately, my idea was incorrect.  For the next two weeks I fielded three questions several times every day:

1) Do you think they have received my letter yet?

2) Will they send the information once they receive my letter?

3) How long will it take to receive back a response?

The first time he asked these I made sure to explain my thoughts completely since he was obviously excited and anxious about continuing on in his studies.  The second time I just figured that he was too hyped up to absorb what I had said the first time.  The third time my nerves were starting to disagree.  This went on and on for about two weeks.  I have a distinct memory of myself praying for his enrollment information to arrive.  At that point, I might have wanted it to come in more than he did.

This scenario has shown me several aspects about myself and others which I didn't see before.  It has shown me that I need to be more patient with others; that others work and absorb information at different rates than I do.  As for others, this has shown me that while a book's cover can tell a lot, it can't tell everything.  So, while it's fine to be cautious, it's not ok to make snap judgments.

And in the end, if the price I must pay for the man to continue on with his education is a little time and aggravation, then I can live with that.  After all, it's a small price to pay to see one more incarcerated student have a fighting chance upon release.

UPDATE:

I'm proud to announce that the gentleman spoken about in this piece has since completed the course of study from the Stratford Career Institute.  To my surprise, he's really focused himself and has shown a marked departure from his old, loud ways.  Truth be told, it has amazed me!  He now stays in his cell and studies.  Now, when he comes to speak to me, it's about his potential future as a veterinary assistant.  I no longer dread the questions, but ponder the possibilities of a life changed.