By Jean Hernandez
For The Herald
Our Washington state community and technical colleges serve some of the most vulnerable members of our community. It is in our DNA to make sure every human being has the opportunity to better their life circumstances through education and gaining strong workforce skills. Colleges also nurture safe and supportive environments where students build their self-confidence.
One group of individuals who are too often forgotten are single mothers who were formerly incarcerated. After serving years in prison, these women struggle to normalize their lives and find employment at a living wage. Having already experienced complex and challenging lives prior to prison, they now find themselves out of prison with additional barriers to overcome, including believing in themselves.
Community and technical colleges have come to recognize that they need to provide additional transition paths for students who were formerly incarcerated. These are known as re-entry programs and are usually the first step of a student’s educational journey.
Eleven of the 34 community and technical colleges in the state offer these re-entry programs. South Seattle College was the first many years ago. Starting in 2015, Edmonds Community College’s Next Steps program became the state’s second re-entry program. The foundation of reentry programs is built on strong humanistic values: accept the student where they are, as well as being candid, open and honest. Another important aspect of these programs is that the instructors and staff work closely with students to support them and validate their sense of self.
Overcoming challenges: After being released, their challenges may include spending the first few months or longer finding housing, going to court to get custody of their children and finding employment. The list of challenges continues: child care, financial, transportation, time to study and a sense of belonging. Depending on how long in prison, single mothers may find themselves lost in the new world of technology and how to tell their story without jeopardizing the chances of getting employment. Single mothers have shared that when they started the re-entry program there was a sense of fear and uncertainty. In the end, they were thankful for the college’s re-entry program because of its positive focus and encouragement.
Some individuals have shared they feel like they have “too many balls in the air” and need guidance and resources on how to juggle all these demands. Yet, when one meets these formerly incarcerated single mothers, there is determination and passion in their eyes that reflects their commitment to make transformative life changes. They want a better life for themselves and their children.
Another one of their biggest challenges is finding a balance of work and life. They struggle between wanting to spend quality time with their children while also being a student; studying and being active in college programs. As the students learn more about the many support services and programs like TRiO, Career Action Center and Phi Theta Kappa, they become more engaged and begin to feel “normal,” excited and invigorated. For one mother the re-entry program provided an environment where she could dream and even consider transferring to a university to get her bachelor’s degree; she believes the re-entry program gave her the confidence and hope to see herself in a meaningful, successful career path.
Finding a sense of community: Formerly incarcerated single mothers have shared how they often feel judged by others. The re-entry programs create a community of students, faculty and staff where support and encouragement are demonstrated. The program faculty and staff stay connected with local community resources that can provide additional support for the students, like a 12-step program or food bank.
Often, that first quarter at the college offers students a number of resources and classes that help them with financial literacy, job search skills (e.g., resume writing and interviewing), housing and employment connections, and probably the most important—to believe in themselves and that they are good people.
Several single mothers have shared that for the first time since leaving prison, they feel excited to be with other students who were formerly incarcerated because there is no need to feel embarrassed about the past, and they can openly share their feelings and frustrations. More importantly, fellow students can relate to their criminal background and similar barriers, like the difficulty in finding employment.
Brighter future: These individuals often have no idea what to do once they leave prison; in some cases, the single mother has been in prison for 20 years or longer. The re-entry program provides realistic options about career paths. For instance, if the single mother has a felony record, there are restrictions on what fields she can pursue and is not allowed to work with vulnerable populations. The college advisers provide information on the numerous other career opportunities, educational credentials that are needed and wages they can expect.
Sometimes formerly incarcerated single mothers find themselves wanting to give back to their community by seeking a field where they can coach or work with underserved populations. They have a desire to learn from their own life experiences and share those insights with others in the hope of them avoid the same pitfalls. They also believe that having already hit bottom, all they can do is move forward, and say, “I have to do it for my kids.”
Making a difference: I share these stories with our community to encourage conversations about how formerly incarcerated single mothers are being left behind: emotionally, intellectually and economically. They deserve to be able to get a great education that allows them to make a living wage to support their families and contribute to society. Help me remove those cloaks of invisibility and vulnerability.
Programs like Edmonds Community College’s Next Steps re-entry program gives students who were previously incarcerated a second chance while building their self-confidence and sense of worth. The classroom also is a safe environment were students can share their personal experiences of transition. If you know someone who was formerly incarcerated, please encourage them to contact Edmonds Community College and begin the journey of transforming their lives through a quality educational program.
To all the single mothers out there, may this be your best Mother’s Day ever!
Dr. Jean Hernandez is president emeritus at Edmonds Community College.