16:13 PM

Former inmates learn to teach in UHCL Bridges Out program

Each year, over 600,000 individuals are released from prison, and about 75% of them are re-arrested within five years, reports the American Psychological Association. Convictions limit employment prospects, and this is exactly the problem that University of Houston-Clear Lake's Associate Professor of Humanities Shreerekha Subramanian aims to address.

Subramanian, who has been teaching in the university's Academics for Offenders program at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's W.F. Ramsey Unit in Rosharon, Texas since 2007, has launched a new initiative she calls "Bridges Out," targeting paroled students who have completed their master's degree through the prison program.

The Academics for Offenders program was conceived at the beginning of UHCL's history in 1974, and has now been renamed Transforming Lives by Degrees.
It continues to be directed by TLD Director William Powers, and the program's work and new directive is supported by Glenn Sanford, dean of the College of Human Sciences and Humanities.

"This new directive is the bridge from the prison classroom to the campus classroom, a way to bring our most outstanding graduates of our own TLD program into our university community," Subramanian said. "By shadowing our willing and outstanding faculty, the alumni of the TLD program figure out ways to acclimate to an academic life in the free world. They will gain insight into how faculty prepare their lessons, manage their classes, teach in the various modes, and balance their service and research on top of it all."

She added that the great hope is that these outstanding alum will one day become faculty members themselves and be formally recognized as repositories of knowledge from whom others can learn. "Ultimately the 'Bridges Out' initiative is a bridge to greater learning, knowledge and self-sufficiency for the beloved alum of our TLD program," she said.

Two of UH-Clear Lake's First-Year Seminar professors, Anne Gessler and Wanalee Romero, have volunteered to mentor one recent graduate from the program. Each graduate has expressed a desire to explore teaching in higher education as a career.

"I've just recently volunteered to do this," Gessler said. "I've always been interested in teaching at Ramsey, and this was an opportunity for me to get involved. I've been wanting to participate in some way for a long time."

She said two graduates would be shadowing UHCL faculty to see what it's like to be a professor on a daily basis. "They're attending our classes and meetings with us, and finding out about the research we do and what it's like being on the teaching end," she said.

Gessler's mentee, Johnny Ward, earned his Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Science and his Master of Arts in Literature while incarcerated.

"The prison space is a difficult and traumatic environment," he said. "Education provided hope during that dark season of my life. I taught for 10 years in prison, offering insight and encouragement to others, and was able to connect in ways far beyond the classroom. This passion I vowed to carry on beyond the walls that confined me."

Ward said the impact of incarceration is far reaching. "My hope is to help those involved in the program to transition back into society," he said. "I hope to humanize those that many in society see as 'lost causes.' My vision is to become a professor and travel the country educating those who don't know the impact of imprisonment."

Romero said that one reason that she chose to teach at UHCL was the Academics for Offenders program. "As a returning, first-generation Latina college student, I was always highly aware of being in a space in which I was not comfortable," she said. "None of my background prepared me for where I am, and that's why I feel drawn to populations that have similar challenges to learning."

She said that when Subramanian announced there was a program to help former inmates transition to careers in teaching, she thought she could be helpful. "I'm working with Paresh Patel, who's got a lot of experience teaching in prison, but is new to teaching outside," she said. "His experience complements what I'm doing in the First-Year Seminar program, so he can teach me as well as learn from me."

Patel said he had always had the inclination to teach and lead people, even before his incarceration. "When I got to prison, I came across a lot of guys who desperately needed someone to teach them math," he said. "I asked to volunteer to teach math for GED classes and then went to offer my services every day after I worked in a factory. After a while, they saw I had good results and switched me to the education department."

At that time, Patel enrolled in Alvin Community College, and continued tutoring literacy, English and math. "It took trial and error to tailor myself to the teaching methods to reach them, but once those guys realized that in my heart, there was nothing but my wish to help them learn, I started to get through," he said. "That's what gave me the drive."

Patel earned his associate's from ACC, then completed the Bachelor of Arts in Humanities and the Master of Arts in Literature programs at UHCL.

"My passion to teach and make a difference got bigger," he said. "My career aspiration is to become a professor. But the degrees are meaningless if you can't do anything out here because of your background check. But I'm not discouraged, I will continue to look for opportunities, and to find ways to humanize those who have transformed their lives through education and want to be contributing members of society. I want to pave the way for the next ones coming behind."

For more information about UHCL's Transforming Lives by Degrees program, go online.