For the first time in history, an incarcerated community has an independent, accredited college program all its own. Newly named Mt. Tamalpais College (MTC) has established residency at San Quentin State Prison.
“Everything happening right now is an affirmation of the unique challenges and questions we’ve faced. Every prison should have a college.”
PUP spent 2018 and 2019 preparing itself for evaluation by the Association of Community Colleges and Junior Colleges (ACCJC). Near the end of January, the ACCJC accepted PUP as a Candidate for Accreditation.
Mt. Tamalpais College can now operate as an independent academic institution and completely break free from PUP’s longstanding affiliation with Patten University. For years, the partnership allowed PUP courses and degrees to be accredited.
“Patten actually did us a solid [favor],” said Lewen. “They’re fully shut down now, but they stayed open until we received accreditation. They didn’t want our students to be harmed.”
Under ACCJC guidelines, MTC has a two-year window to get its program fully in compliance with accreditation standards. The required improvements will mainly focus on data tracking and assessing student outcomes.
Lewen started teaching at San Quentin in the Spring of 1999 and reflected back on the decades she’s devoted to bringing higher education to her incarcerated students.
“I’ve always asked the questions: What quality of education can we provide, based on our resources? How many people can we realistically serve? How much money can we raise? What kinds of careers will our students use their education for? How will we develop strategies to carry our voices out onto the public sphere?”
“To me, achieving our independence seems like an overwhelmingly positive response to all these questions.”
For most PUP students, Amy Jamgochian became a familiar figure as their Academic Program Coordinator for the last five years. She’s always remained accessible and ready to listen to each student’s individual needs.
“I knew very little about the accreditation world,” said Jamgochian, now MTC Chief Academic Officer. “We have to up our game in demonstrating the value of our program and the rigor of our education.
“We’re the first of our kind—pioneers. That’s exciting! It’s gratifying to know that so many of our students support our independence.”
Corey McNeil sees things from the students’ perspective. As a PUP graduate and now an education clerk for MTC, he interacts with his peers daily and fields questions from them about upcoming changes.
“Everyone’s excited about a whole new gamut of classes becoming available,” said McNeil. “So many students have suggestions and ideas. It’ll be really interesting to see how that all plays out in the future.”
By most accounts, it will be business as usual for now. Learning Specialist Allison Lopez said MTC will continue providing the same high quality education that PUP has for years.
“We’re doing what we’ve always done,” said Lopez. “The biggest thing right now is a symbolic change, with branding our new name and establishing ourselves as an independent program. It’s a big statement, of course, but for our students everything mostly should feel the same—in a good way.”
Lewen said one of the biggest challenges continues to be planning for financial sustainability.
“Our program has no wealthy alumni,” she said. “We’ve never charged our students any fees or tuition. And we receive zero funding from the state or federal government.
“What’s our plan? We’ll have to develop and broaden our donor base of individuals and foundations, but it’s not just about money. It’s about community support.”
Kathy Richards currently serves as Secretary on the MTC Board of Directors. “Some people think it’s insane for prisoners to get a free education,” she said. “Some think I’m insane for coming in here.”
“Fortunately, a lot of folks see the value—see how amazing it is. The more people that come in here and say, ‘Wow, this is cool,’ it changes that view.”
Richards also teaches English and coaches the Ethics Bowl team, which stands undefeated through three years of league competition.
“Society as a whole is better off when they meet the individuals who are actually here,” she said. “People have ideas on what a felon is, then they’re surprised to see their ideas are wrong.”
In September, David Durand joined the MTC faculty as Director of Student Affairs. He started out volunteering as a PUP instructor almost a year ago.
“Now that we don’t have any limitations, it’s like a blank slate of opportunities,” said Durand. “That excites me. I love being involved in things from scratch.
“Coming into our own identity and seeing our students learning what they’re truly capable of doing, we’re building a roadmap for other institutions.”
Durand recently helped launch mentorship program where students and nonstudents can all come together to, hopefully, forge organic and collaborative relationships.
Swati Rayasam first got involved in Jan. 2019 as a volunteer research assistant for English 204—the requisite course where students complete a notoriously daunting research paper as their class project.
Rayasam, who co-teaches this semester’s 204 class, sees herself as a “research challenger” and “growth opportunist.”
“Being recognized as independent and accredited—that just validates the PUP model of education as a form of empowerment,” she said. “It’s a real win. Education should be more than teachers lecturing at students.
“In a growth-minded environment, I learn as much from you as you learn from me. It’s incredibly powerful. Now we’ll be able to box this program up and give it to other facilities.”
MTC Communications Associate Jared Rothenberg definitely has his work cut out for him. “My role will be to focus on communicating our new identity,” he said. “We’re literally a new entity now.
“PUP’s history and reputation’s going to continue, but we’re going to be known as something else.”
Rothenberg said he sees MTC’s independence as a real opportunity to educate the public by amplifying the voice of the student body.
“Incarcerated people are just as intellectually capable as anyone else,” said Rothenberg. “We can show how to lead the field—not only of higher education in prison, but of higher education in general.”