Mount Tamalpais College staff hosted a long-awaited symposium that featured research results on the benefits of college attendance to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.
The event was held on Aug. 25 in San Quentin’s education B building. MTC staff member Jen Juras welcomed everyone and introduced the keynote speaker, Dr. Naomi Levy of Santa Clara University. Levy is a professor of political science who began teaching at MTC in the fall term.
Levy shared with the audience her experiences as a researcher in Europe and South America. “I love everything about research,” said Levy.
She also presented key findings from surveys taken at SQ between 2018 and 2019; informing the audience of up-to-date college participation statistics for alumni of MTC based on interviews of incarcerated graduates and those formerly incarcerated. She emphasized the finding that former students gained more confidence upon completing college.
The benefits start even before students graduate. The surveys found 60% of students become more motivated after taking five or more classes, obtaining new skills and increasing their self-esteem.
“I didn’t see myself as someone incarcerated — I was a student. I carried a book all around and was constantly studying,” a former student was quoted as saying in the survey results.
“It is truly a transformative experience and one that will not only transform the individual but allow the individual to regain a contributory role in society,” said another former student in a survey.
College programs change how students see their potential and the potential of others by improving their relationships inside and outside of prison. The surveys found 40% of students serve as tutors and mentors to their peers versus 9% for those who don’t take any classes. Participating in a college program makes students more confident they will find a job after incarceration.
However, incarcerated students — even at a programming-focused institution such as San Quentin — face challenges in receiving their education. Classes can be canceled without warning or explanation. Students can be delayed during unlocks or in trying to navigate through the various checkpoints to get to classrooms. These issues also affect non-MTC programs, but the resulting frustrations were expressed by many of the incarcerated students present at the symposium.
Most of the feedback expressed at the symposium was related to gratitude for MTC and for the opportunity to go to college.
MTC student Vincent Turner, who was present, said, “No matter if it is the college program, self-help groups, sports or GED, overall these are the opportunities that help change the narrative of who we are.”
Andrew Gazzeny, another MTC student at the symposium, said, “For me, MTC staff have been nurturing in a magnanimous way and that helps you overcome nearly every obstacle that any student can encounter, whether it be academic or personal.”
MTC student John Levin, who was present, added, “Prison is typically divided on racial and ethnic boundaries. However, in an educational environment, those boundaries disintegrate and we become one community of learners.”
Dr. Levy emphasized it has been proven that recidivism rates go down when incarcerated people are given the opportunity to further their education.
“My job is to guide you, to be able to answer your own questions as a group,” concluded Dr. Levy.
Dr. Levy will be sharing her passion for research by teaching a research clinic at MTC on Tuesdays and Fridays at 3 p.m. The official name of the course is Socio-Science SSC 280, and it will cover data types, data collection and data presentation, among other topics. The only prerequisite is completion of English 204. To see if there is still room to sign up or inquire about class schedules in the future, please visit SQ’s Education Department.
— Manuel Dorado contributed to this story