Learning Lessons—and Earning Degrees—on the Inside

Through the Tufts University Prison Initiative of Tisch College, the first cohort of incarcerated students earn associate degrees—the first group to do so in state history

For most of his life, the odds have been stacked against Luis Rodriguez. He was born into an abusive household. His mother, addicted to drugs and seldom around, was under 20, and his father was a middle-aged drug dealer.

Growing up in the Merrimack Valley area of Massachusetts, Rodriguez—his name changed for confidentiality—shuffled around among the households of siblings and half-siblings. His father, when present, beat and belittled him; he also refused to let Rodriguez take ADHD medication that helped him to thrive in school.

Rodriguez turned to violence and gangs. Eventually, he landed in prison, on a life sentence without parole. He summed up his experiences this way: “I started to look at my gang as my family and went all out for it… I was on a dangerous spiral and didn’t even notice. It was like, all my life, I was brought up to be this.”

But Rodriguez has grown far beyond the limitations from his youth. That’s due in part to TUPIT, the Tufts University Prison Initiative of Tisch College. Thanks to the program, in May Rodriguez and 11 fellow incarcerated men at the Concord branch of the Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI-Concord) became the first cohort of incarcerated college students in state history to earn their associate degrees in the liberal arts—with every student graduating with honors.

A Life-Changing Program

Hilary Binda, AG03, TUPIT’s founding director, launched the program in 2016; its first cohort of students began taking classes in 2018. In collaboration with Bunker Hill Community College, Tufts faculty teach incarcerated men at MCI-Concord many of the same courses that they give to students on the Medford/Somerville campus.

These courses fulfill the requirements for the Bunker Hill associate degree. Once students have reached that milestone, they can continue their Tufts coursework for two more years and earn a bachelor’s degree in civic studies from Tufts.

Students in the MyTERN program (2021-2022) with Medford/Somerville student co-learners

MyTERN program students (2021-2022) with Medford/Somerville student co-learners Photo: Courtesy of TUPIT

The program has been life-changing for participants. As Rodriguez stated in an assignment written for a memoir-writing course, “Getting into and doing well in the Tufts/Bunker Hill college program is the highest honor and accomplishment of my life. My sentence reduction was the only event more uplifting than the blessing of college courses…. The opportunity to learn and be guided by professors from a world-renowned university has made me feel valued for the first time in my life, like I have potential for a broader spectrum of opportunities.” (Rodriguez’s sentence was reduced from life without parole to life, with an opportunity to present his case to the parole board after 15 years.)

In addition to the associate and bachelor’s degree programs, TUPIT runs the Tufts Educational Reentry Network program (MyTERN), a year-long program for people who have recently returned from incarceration, on the university’s Boston campus.

The program, which culminates in a civic studies certificate, offers four accredited courses, a laptop, extensive technology support from Tufts students, opportunities for civic engagement, and assistance with housing and employment via partnerships with local reentry organizations. Graduates of the program assume a mentoring role as MyTERN Justice Fellows, who engage and support the next year’s students.

“The opportunity to learn and be guided by professors from a world-renowned university has made me feel valued for the first time in my life, like I have potential for a broader spectrum of opportunities.”

Luis Rodriguez, associate degree recipient

A Truly Unique Model—Nationally

“TUPIT and MyTERN together provide a model for higher education with a focus on reintegration that is unique in the country,” said Binda. “The program at MCI-Concord has helped to change the prison culture by providing a space for our students to build trust and community, creating different kinds of relationships with one another, often across racial, cultural, and other differences.”

According to Binda, many Tufts undergraduates who participate as students and teaching assistants say their involvement with the program is one of the best experiences they have ever had.

The second graduating cohort of MyTERN students to earn the certificate in Civic Studies from Tufts

The second graduating cohort of MyTERN students to earn the certificate in Civic Studies from Tufts. Photo: Courtesy of TUPIT

“Being involved with TUPIT is hands-down the most powerful experience I had throughout my entire Tufts career,” said Claudia Guetta, A22, a former TUPIT participant.

Guetta joined TUPIT during her first semester at Tufts, when she signed up for a class Binda teaches called Literatures of Confinement. The class takes places under the auspices of another TUPIT project, Inside-Out, which offers opportunities for Tufts undergraduates from the Medford/Somerville campus to learn alongside incarcerated people at the state’s maximum-security prison, Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center.

The “Traditional” Tufts Student, Redefined

“Being in a class with people I wouldn’t normally ever have a chance to take a class with, or even interact with, allowed me to have transformative conversations,” said Guetta. “There is no better learning experience than one that breaks down the barriers between people who are seemingly different, and that uncovers a deeply shared passion for education and transformation.” TUPIT is redefining both equity and justice as well as what it means to be a “‘traditional’ Tufts student,” she said.

When the class ended, Guetta searched for ways to stay involved. She spent the spring semester of her first year at Tufts fundraising for TUPIT and helping to create MyTERN with Binda and others with lived experience of incarceration. Through her remaining time at Tufts, she was a student in MyTERN and served as a teaching assistant for classes offered as part of the associate degree.

Guetta worked closely with Rodriguez, whom she had first met as a fellow student in Binda’s class. “He was reserved and quiet when I first got to know him,” she said, “But four years later, he was laughing and smiling and speaking up for himself. You could see his confidence and the way that his education and all the relationships he’s established through the program have really cultivated his growth.”

Rodriguez’s own descriptions of his experience in the associate degree program make clear exactly how profoundly he was affected. “Even though I was raised on a tradition of violence…. and anti-social tendencies,” he wrote, “I finally overcame them through education and making myself aware that life can be something other than violence and fear…. Every day is another opportunity to learn something new and keep growing for the better.”

Rodriguez and other members of his TUPIT cohort are now continuing their coursework toward the Tufts bachelor’s degree, while a second cohort of MCI-Concord students is now progressing toward their associate degrees.

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