Union County College has changed my life; the experience has changed my thinking, and given me hope. You see, all through my elementary, middle, and high school years I did very poorly. I had a learning disability and because of it, I had a hard time concentrating. At six, I despised school, mainly because I was the forgotten kid in the class, a ghost at a desk. No one, not even the teacher spoke to me. The loneliness I felt was overwhelming. I became so frustrated I threw a chair at the teacher just to let her know that I was real. As you would expect, I got her attention and a seven-day suspension that I cleverly hid from my mother. Yet, most of the time no one cared if I was there or not, and for that reason, when my suspension was over, I chose not to go back.
My classroom became the streets of Ocean City, New Jersey where I was the center of attention. Ocean City, a narrow seven-and-a-half-mile-long barrier island with a long sandy beachfront on the east and marshlands facing the bay on the west was my domain and I knew every inch of it. I knew where the cracks in the sidewalks were, where each grain of sand was placed, the names of the streets, which planks on the boardwalk were loose, the names of the boarding houses, restaurants, and churches. I knew which beaches were best for flying kites, where the seagulls kept their nests, and which bridges were best for fishing. I knew Ocean City like the back of my hand from north to south, bay to beach; and the island was my best friend. I roamed about the island alone during school hours and caught the attention of concerned citizens. Eventually, the truant officer tracked me down and sent me back to school. Placed in a special school for children with emotional problems, I felt alone and depressed. My negative academic experience continued as I lost interest and began to act out in class and thus, held back in 4th and 7th grades. Placed in special education classes for most of my school days, it seemed that no one noticed or cared if I was there. Ignored by my classmates, misunderstood by my teachers, I became lost, frustrated, and hopeless.
Believing that I did not have much of a future, I dropped out of high school at 19 with a tenth grade education. I never really learned how to read, write, or divide and multiply numbers. With my future looking grim, I took a job as a bus boy earning minimum wage at a restaurant in Atlantic City: the only job, which I was qualified. Lost and Confused, I tried to join the US Army, but they required enlistees to have a High School Diploma and because of this, they turned me down. The Recruiter sent me off to the National Guard Armory two blocks away. The National Guard waived the Diploma requirement and I signed up and shipped out for Basic Training at Fort Knox, Kentucky a month later, eight weeks after that I arrived at Fort Belvoir, Virginia for Advance Individual Training (AIT). After completing training, I returned to civilian life disappointed. There was an empty space in me that I could not fill. I felt alone, miserable, and hopeless. Haunted by a troubled past, I fell into a dark period in my life plagued with depression, misery, and self-destruction. I attempted suicide several times, each time temporarily being treated and then released.
I did not realize until a much later the importance of an education and the reality that I urgently needed one. By then, I had made several bad decisions that led me to further isolation from my family, depression, and imprisonment. Fortunately, for me, while locked up, I took advantage of the time to better myself. I learned how to read, write, and understand and apply mathematics. After months of hard work and frustration, I earned my General Education Diploma. It was a defining moment in my life, one that would open doors for me; yet, it took me a little more time for me to see those doors.
In the winter of 2006, while in prison, I earned the privilege to participate in the Halfway House Program in Elizabeth NJ. It was at this moment I realized I needed to make better decisions and seen it was essential to learn a new way of thinking. I realized my old thinking kept leading me to despair, heartache, and trouble. I wanted to overcome my past and terrible habit of letting down my family. The only way to do this was to go back to school.
In May of 2006, I applied to Union County College and enrolled into the EOF Summer program. I felt accepted and welcomed by the EOF counselors. They saw my potential, encouraged me, and helped me achieve a level of academic confidence that I never thought was possible. Placed into two developmental courses, English Writing (ENG099) and Intro to Algebra (MAT022), I struggled in the beginning, but with encouragement from my professors and guidance from ALC and EOF tutors, I began to improve. It was the longest summer that I ever known and I witnessed a profound change in myself. I learned to write, think logically and critically, and finally see my potential to succeed. It was the first time in my life that I received an “A”, or a “B” in anything.
In the Fall semester, I enrolled in five classes, earned a “B+” in English (ENG102), and “As” in Algebra (MAT119), Help-desk (CIS140), First Year Seminar (UCC101), and General Psychology (PSY101). I learn a great deal more about myself that semester much more than previously. In Psychology class, I found answers to question about myself that I never knew existed. It was another turning point for me. When I my report card came in mail, I looked at it in shock. My first regular semester of college and I earned a 3.89 GPA. The following semester, Union County College’s Honors Society, Phi Theta Kappa (PTK), inducted me into their ranks. I had found my way out of a life full of bad choices and pessimism.
The next semester, spring 2007, I was invited to participate in the Honors Program and enrolled into English Honors with Dr. Russell (ENGH102). In addition, I registered in four more classes: SPA101, MAT143, CIS207, and BUS105. Furthermore, I worked at the Academic Learning Center as a tutor and as the Student-at-Large for the Student Government Association (SGA). I earned “As” in beginning Spanish with Dr. Hawley, in Business Management with Dr. Singer and English Honors with Dr. Russell. It was the most life changing time of my life. My mother tells me that it’s the best thing I ever done, going to UCC.
On May 7 2007, I was removed from the halfway house, for reasons beyond my control, and sent back to prison to finish my sentence. The twelve months that followed were difficult, but I managed to keep my spirits up, mind sharp, and focus on the future. I read many books and set a goal to return to Union County College to finish my degree. I found comfort in knowing that I finally broke the chains of recidivism and this was my last time in prison. I kept visualizing my success in college, it was this hope that I held on to tightly for the entire 12 months. I planned for it, made list of things to do: survive the day, read books, study math, fill out financial aid application, speak to professors, submit application for admission, change major, etc. I went over my list every day for a year waiting for my release.
Finally, on May 6 2008 I was released from prison. My goal of returning to college firmly fixed in my mind. I started to put my plan into action; and to date completed most of my checklist: financial aid is secured for the fall; classes are picked out, professors contacted, and job on campus is secured. The only outstanding item on my list is to find a place to live. Surprisingly this has been most difficult part of my goal. I have been temporarily living with friends and family since my release, bouncing from couch to couch. So far, I have taken three trips to Elizabeth, 2 buses and 4 trains each way, to seek out a room close to campus. I have seen several rooms that demanded the first month rent up front and a hefty security deposit. I do not have the money to pay for a room, and it is hard to find work these days especially with my record. The thing that I thought was going to be the easiest turned out to be the hardest: finding a place to live. But I am optimistic, I have to be, I no longer dwell on negative thoughts. I will reach my goal achieve the academic and personal success that has eluded me.