Are We Herding — Tracking, Really — Students Down a One-Size-Fits-All-Alley Way to College?

This is Part 6 of my series “Letters from John.” In Part I, I wrote, “I’m in a beautifully loving marriage to John Dukes, a man who is truly one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. My husband is also incarcerated. During our friendship, courtship, and marriage, John and I have spent a lot of time tracing his trajectory from the various schools he attended as a boy in NYC and on Long Island  to his current status as an inmate in a New York State correctional facility. Part 2 is here, Part 3  is here, Part 4 is here, and Part 5 is here.

As so often is the case, it is when we reflect on our pasts that we gain new insights into our thought processes and decision making. In this most recent letter from my husband John,  he brings up the harsh realities of being an adult who just made it out of high-school and is faced with the tough question — what’s next? He thoughtfully walks us through the different routes he took and ultimately where he ended up. The old adage “a day late and a dollar short” comes to my mind as I pore over his story. His words also make me think about this goal of preparing all students to be “College and Career Ready.” Some more clarity is needed to fully understand what this lofty undertaking really entails. There seems to be too much emphasis put into getting kids into college; but what about those kids for whom college is not the best route for personal success? Are we teaching students to make decisions about their lives – present and future – that will garner them sustainability and contentment? Or are we herding —  tracking, really — students down a “one-size-fits-all” alley way to college? I’ve said this before and it bears repeating: College is not for everyone!

Graduating from college does not guarantee success or even financial freedom, for that matter. There are other pathways our students can travel towards their desired goal of being financially comfortable adults. I wish my husband had been exposed to and taken advantage of such options prior to going to prison. I hope that through his transparency, others will be spared his fate.


Dear Vivett,

Here I was. Officially an adult. After thinking about my future, it became evident that my present state needed assistance. I had to love more than money to survive in life. Fashion designing came to mind; after all, it had been the only class in school that I ever legitimately liked and could see myself pursuing as a career.

First though, I thought about seeking out trade schools because I figured it wouldn’t be set up like a traditional educational facility. I still didn’t respect school or like it for me. To me, school created people that work for people smarter than them. Basically, school reminded me of a training camp — a place encouraging the people there to follow rules. I never saw entrepreneurship and free thinking promoted.

Still, I chose to attend a college – Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan – because I could receive a degree (what everyone sees as being most important) AND sew (what I saw as being important and enjoyed doing). After all my running from school, I finally decided to learn. Among other factors in my life, creating a business of my own really motivated me.

My college journey began by going to a homecoming party at F.I.T, and then I applied shortly afterwards. I remember writing an essay and filling out the necessary paperwork. I went to an orientation where F.I.T. showed a movie to students wanting to register.

Unfortunately, I came to prison weeks later.

Prison lacked opportunities and only gave basic skills. Having a high school diploma was like graduating with honors. Most prisons view having a high school diploma like having a Master’s degree. How sad.

Facilities do give out mandatory programs (jobs) that prisoners are trained to do in order to help the facility run. We mop, sweep and prepare food while being overseen. There are many “jobs” to do in prison; but most consist of chores.

College is back in most maximum security prisons, but fashion design isn’t a course offered. Although I might sound ungrateful concerning the Behavioral Science degrees that are given and that I’m pursuing (for the second time around) my tone comes from a lack of interest. I signed up for college when I first came to prison even though I still didn’t want to attend. I told myself, “College can’t hurt” and “At least you’ll have a degree.” Such ordinary thoughts bug me. A degree shouldn’t be a “just because” move. I should want it and commit myself to using it properly.

College in prison was and still is difficult for me because prison is not a social club and the college classes force me to interact  with men that I would otherwise avoid.

Truthfully — college education is great; but everyone isn’t in school for the same reasons. My so-called peers can be very annoying in class. I’ve tried to tune out certain ignorant behaviors but the peanut gallery coupled with the fact that I’m really not that interested doesn’t exactly help.

The reality is that there are some functioning men residing here; but, there are a lot more dysfunctional males here and while a behavioral science degree should help, it doesn’t always work out that way. That’s why I dropped out the first time I attempted to go.

Eventually, I started going back to college and learning to just tune things out. I had to encourage myself, find the good in attending school. I believe my current job working with mental health inmates helped influence my decision. I figured if I knew more and was more educated, I would be more effective.

I was right.

In fact, I started a book club with the men I work with. We do Q & As after we read a chapter or two aloud. Knowing my degree will be put to good use compelled me to endure what I have left to complete of college.

Vivett, I love you. I’m thankful you encourage me. I’m also grateful I chose to reapply to college before we reconnected. I know how important education is to you. I’ll write again.



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