Adam Kouraimi remembers the satisfaction of receiving his first college report card in prison about four years ago.
He'd been incarcerated since age 15. Growing up, getting straight A's in school seemed like the stuff of legends. So when he received 4.0's in art and American history courses through Jackson College, it was a "game changer."
Kouraimi, 35, is out of prison now and is working toward his bachelor's degree in digital media production. The Ypsilanti resident is part of a new pilot program at Eastern Michigan University that's guiding people as they pursue higher education and navigate the complexities of life after incarceration.
Adam Kouraimi, 35 of Ypsilanti stands during a Zoom session call with his Eastern Michigan University independent studies professor Decky Alexander at his apartment on Wednesday, February 10, 2021. Kouraimi is in a pilot program at EMU headed by Alexander, to help former incarcerated people who want to either go to college or continue the college education they started in prison. Kouraimi went to prison at the age of 15 for armed robbery and spent 19 years in before being released in 2019. Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press
The Returning Citizen Fellows program, which launched in January, helps cohorts of up to seven formerly incarcerated people attend EMU tuition-free thanks to federal Pell Grants and university grants. The program provides technology training, mentoring, academic support and opportunities for work-study. It's a collaboration among the university, the Ypsilanti-based reentry nonprofit A Brighter Way and the Michigan Department of Corrections' Offender Success program. The program also has funding from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation.
"It requires so much wraparound navigation. It’s holistic counseling and support," said Jessica "Decky" Alexander, a professor and the director of Engage@EMU, the university's hub for community collaboration.
Among the first group of five fellows are people who took college courses while incarcerated, some who enrolled in community college after prison and others who have old credits from decades ago. One man entered the program more than 20 years since he last attended college and is just two courses and a general education requirement away from receiving his bachelor's degree.
Along with taking classes as part of the pilot, Kouraimi is working for the program in an advisory role. He will help create a handbook about pursuing postsecondary education for MDOC to distribute to people preparing for their release from prison. He said education was a "saving grace" for him, and he wants to see more people returning home access the resources to go to school.
"There are people that want those opportunities — that really, really want to go to school to better themselves — but they’re just not in a position to do that. It doesn’t even, all the time, come down to funding. It’s the information that people have access to," he said. "This program is the beginning of creating that information pathway."
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'Changing what it looks like to assist'
Specialized programs like the one at EMU can help formerly incarcerated people navigate a number of potential challenges to pursuing a degree, said Ruth Delaney, a program manager at the Vera Institute of Justice. Assistance might range from helping a student understand the application and financial aid process to coaching them on social skills to advocate for themselves in an unfamiliar college setting.
"If you're coming out of prison, you have the especially difficult challenge of having been in an institution for a number of years," she said, adding that prisons are settings that don't reward people for "self-efficacy or agency or advocacy or any kind of effort to really get things for yourself."
These programs have emerged across the country in recent years, following the lead of some of the earliest efforts in New York City and San Francisco, Delaney said.
Leaders behind EMU's initiative say they hope their approach to supporting returning citizens can serve as a model for other universities and colleges in Michigan.
"You (can) change the perspective of what it looks like for formerly incarcerated folks to pursue a degree. You’re changing what it looks like to assist folks," said Cozine Welch, executive director of A Brighter Way.
A box that asks about someone's criminal history on applications can have a chilling effect if colleges and universities aren't doing outreach with formerly incarcerated populations, Delaney said.
EMU's application asks all prospective students whether they've been convicted of a criminal offense other than a minor traffic violation, whether they've been found to be delinquent by a juvenile court and whether any charges are pending against them. Applicants are asked to explain their offenses.
The university might request further information about a conviction, such as parole or police reports, or a more detailed personal statement, said spokesman Geoff Larcom. EMU does not deny admission based solely on a past conviction without requesting further information, he said.
Larcom said the university is discussing its process for admitting returning citizens in light of the pilot program.
"Questions to be considered include factoring in the mentorship the program offers, the length of time out of prison, the hands-on support program participants would receive and noting the challenges inherent in reintegrating into society," he said in an email.
Once a student is admitted, the program helps them secure financial aid and switch their previous credits to EMU. Most of the participants in the first cohort won't start classes until later this year because they had loans in default. The program is arranging for them to make payments to get their eligibility reinstated, EMU's Alexander said.
Adam Kouraimi, 35 of Ypsilanti, Michigan attends a Zoom session call with his Eastern Michigan University independent studies professor Decky Alexander at his apartment on Wednesday, February 10, 2021. Kouraimi is in a pilot program at EMU headed by Alexander, to help former incarcerated people who want to either go to college or continue the college education they started in prison. Kouraimi went to prison at the age of 15 for armed robbery and spent 19 years in before being released in 2019. Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press
The university requires participants to enroll in at least nine credit hours but encourages 12 credit hours. The majority of EMU's classes are online this semester because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Participants are given refurbished laptops. Most of the fellows in the first cohort have been incarcerated for more than a decade, Alexander said. The program is showing them how to use tools like Google Docs and the university's online platform for courses.
An individualized approachSome of the participants are on parole, and A Brighter Way is providing additional reentry support.
"There’s the assumption that collegiate life is an easy life, that if someone comes home and they go to college, somehow they found an easy out," said Welch, who is formerly incarcerated. "Like, 'That person got lucky.' No, it’s difficult."
The next cohort is expected to begin in the fall semester. Alexander said an important next step is ensuring the program is sustainable, as more participants will require more personnel and resources from the university.
In terms of helping formerly incarcerated people succeed, Alexander said the program doesn't take a "one-size-fits-all" approach. And for faculty, she thinks "there needs to be education on somebody who's been incarcerated for 20 years and what we as an educational institution could and should do for somebody like that and what kinds of resources are needed."
"A complex history requires a complex approach to helping," Alexander said.
To learn more and to apply to the Returning Citizen Fellows Program, go to emich.edu/engage/academic/returning-citizens/returning_citizens.php
Angie Jackson covers the challenges of formerly incarcerated citizens as a corps member with Report for America. Her work is supported by The GroundTruth Project and the Hudson-Webber Foundation. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work at bit.ly/freepRFA. Become a Free Press subscriber.
Contact Angie: firstname.lastname@example.org; 313-222-1850. Follow her on Twitter: @AngieJackson23