By, Jessica Snow
P2P is constantly evolving. Our program now stretches from coast to coast, offering virtual cohorts inside and outside correctional facilities, reaching hundreds of justice-impacted scholars pursuing the next steps in their education and careers.
But it wasn’t always this way. This summer, our organization celebrated its 25th cohort graduation. Looking back over 25 cohorts, it is easy to see how the program has advanced. Still, despite challenges (gaining access to incarcerated participants and COVID), P2P, like most returning citizens in general, has persevered.
Where we’ve been
We want to celebrate our growth, looking back before cohort 1. The idea for ‘From Prison Cells to Ph.D.’ was devised inside the walls of a Missouri prison as Stanley Andrisse dreamed and planned alongside friends Jerry and Rahmari, also serving time. They could never have expected their dream to manifest into a national non-profit, inspiring and empowering individuals with backgrounds like themselves to pursue their educational and career goals.
The program kicked off after Dr. Andrisse started the ‘Ban the Box’ movement in Maryland alongside Baltimore community giants ‘Out for Justice and the ‘Job Opportunity Task Force.’ He spoke at rallies and colleges, recruiting hundreds of volunteers for the cause. When asked how he recruited scholars for the initial cohort, Dr. Andrisse stated, “Recruitment was relatively easy. After some media attention and a highlight in the Washington Post, we connected with participants through our community partners.”
For cohorts 1 & 2, there was no designated space for in-person delivery. Dr. Andrisse relied on his community and partnered spaces to host in-person scholars and to connect virtually with remote ones.
“In April of 2017, we started cohort 1 with six scholars. By the end of that spring, the first scholar was accepted into Coppin State. Over the next six months, all six scholars were accepted into college and have since graduated with degrees or certificates,” Dr. Andrisse shared.
In the summer of that same year, P2P received its first donation and had its first volunteers come on board. Ruthe Huang, former tutor–now facilitator– was one of P2P’s first volunteers and has been with P2P ever since. She says, “Cohort 2 was the first cohort I was involved in. We had less than ten students, a handful of mentors, and a limited curriculum. We were mostly broadcasting the program at local events in Baltimore, and the only correctional facility we were starting to work with was the Baltimore City Detention Center.”
What has made Ruthe come back, cohort after cohort?
“The scholars inspire me in every cohort through their dedication to learning, motivation towards self-improvement, and encouragement of each other through their collective and individual journeys. I enjoy being a P2P facilitator because the scholars educate me more than I teach them.”-Ruthe Huang, P2P Facilitator.
Transitioning to offer in-person services within Baltimore City’s detention centers was a dream come full circle for Dr. Andrisse. To inspire those on the inside with a story of lived experience and educational success was exciting, and seeing the growth of interest in the program on the outside fueled the momentum of P2P even more.
Enter now-Program Director Mancy Thompson of cohort 3. Mancy learned about P2P after overhearing a radio program interviewing Dr. Andrisse on his work with ‘Ban the Box.’ Mancy laughed, “I was driving and trying to rush to write down the information as I went, which didn’t work. Luckily, there was a flier slid under our door. I reached out to Dr. Andrisse, filled out the information, and came to orientation.” Mancy mentions that cohort 3 met in the auditorium and classroom space at JHU.
“It was inspiring to others to be on the university campus. It highlighted that safe, educational space for fostering learning and critical thinking. A safe space we continue to strive to cultivate throughout all our cohorts, both virtual and in person.”-Mancy Thompson, P2P Program Director
P2P Director of Policy, Advocacy, and Outreach, Machli Joseph, also discovered P2P in the media. He states, “In my profession in higher education, I always wanted to stay informed on the current news and involvement in the field. I was going through my challenging situation, and an Inside Higher Ed article popped up on my feed about Dr. Stan Andrisse: ‘Pathway to Professorship.’ I was immediately intrigued.”
Machli knew that he and Dr. Andrisse could share a similar journey where he was headed. He reached out without experience with the system, and Dr. Andrisse responded. “I saw the Baltimore number, and I was ecstatic. I told him about my process and shared that I was unsure of direction. When we spoke, I sensed a calmness in him that helped to calm me.
“You know how when you talk to somebody about your worries, and you're panicking, their response kind of calms the waters? That's what my conversation with Stan was like.”-Machli Joseph, Director of Policy, Advocacy, and Outreach.
For Machli, Dr. Andrisse took on the role of mentorship, a component of P2P programming that remains key throughout all cohorts. They discussed a recovery plan, and Dr. Andrisse told him about the program. Machli joined cohort 4 shortly thereafter.
P2P continued to expand, with scholars growing in number, joining the program from new states across the country. The Prison-to-Professionals program grew to include more workforce development, job fairs, fine-tuned sessions and classes, and more tutors and mentors to partner alongside scholars in their journey.
P2P continued its presence in Baltimore’s correctional centers until COVID brought everything to a screeching halt. “We were excited about our momentum,” Dr. Andrisse shares, “but COVID massively interrupted our inside delivery. Though the whole country adapted to understanding that services could continue through virtual delivery and video call– administrators didn’t want to explore that possibility due to security issues and fear of security breaches.”
Where we are now
Learning to pivot, P2P poured more time and energy into its virtual cohorts, connecting justice-impacted individuals from coast to coast and finding its rhythm as an organization. Scholar testimonials from this time show excitement, inspiration, inclusion, and gratitude as they state over and over again how P2P began to feel like a family, and how being with like-minded individuals spurred their drive and potential. Due to its growth, almost 15 cohort graduations later, Kimberly Haven and Tenaj Moody were brought on as P2P’s first full-time employees in 2020, with Mancy & Machli to follow in 2021.
“Dr. Andrisse would reach out and check on me. He encouraged me, and over the years, we stayed connected. It was an easy decision for me to apply when the program director position came open,” Mancy says. “This culminated all of my life’s work, especially post-release. I wanted to make sure as many people as possible could grow like me, personally and professionally, so I applied.”
When asked how the cohorts have changed over time, Mancy stated how program adjustments were made to incorporate evidence-based practices. “We began to look at these things and how we could deliver the maximum number of services and opportunities but also make sure these were based on sound research and supported by quantitative and qualitative data.”
He stated,” We learned through self-assessment as an org that we needed to support higher education with more peripheral services that men and women transitioning out of incarceration would need.” These supports included mental health, housing, social determinants, employment barriers, how to answer the felony conviction question, and more.
Machli sees the evolution of the program from the village perspective. “We can’t do anything on our own,” he states, “P2P recognizes this and is evolving because we have enormous potential based on the partners and connections we’ve made in this journey. And that’s how we’ve made an impact on the work that we do.”
This summer, P2P graduated its 25th cohort. Every scholar enters the program with a different story. With the encouragement of a dedicated program team, mentors, and tutors, they leave with a support system & family familiar with the challenges and barriers they may face, and a network that will continue to connect them with opportunities down the road.
When asked about his favorite part of the cohorts as Program Director, Mancy states, “My favorite part is the things I’ve learned. It’s a program designed to engage scholars and impart knowledge and information. But I firmly believe that I learn just as much from them, if not more, in each cohort as they do.”
Where we’re going
With the start of cohort 26, P2P is excited to announce that we have gone back to correctional facilities. Our first inside cohort graduation since COVID will take place this weekend inside the Saint Louis Transition Center on Sunday (see our next blog post, coming soon.). P2P continues to move forward, ever-evolving, and striving to meet as many scholars as possible in their journey to higher education and beyond.
When asked what has surprised him most over the past five years, Dr. Andrisse shares,
“What has surprised me is that we continue to have to make a strong argument for higher education attainment and advanced degree attainment.”
He continues, “People are still in disbelief and find it cool and catchy, but not believable. They find it is not probable or possible to take people from prison and inspire them to pursue advanced degrees. But we know that we are not just focused on getting doctorate degrees, but helping people achieve their dreams and help themselves.”
Machli Joseph shares the need for scholars' involvement as P2P moves forward, “I’m excited we will continue to grow and do bigger and better things, but we won’t know how to do these things without scholars being a part of this process. We need feedback. It’s the response and commitment of previous scholars in the program willing to stay connected and make sure they voice what’s necessary to grow and be impactful for those who need P2P. Without their feedback, we can’t be effective.”
Ruthe Huang shares her hopes for future cohorts, “I hope to continue seeing the trend of P2P scholars returning as mentors for future cohorts! In my opinion, this is one of the best outcomes and the greatest growth for P2P because it's sustainable and builds and improves the criminal justice-involved community.”
Program Director Mancy Thompson shares, “I am most excited about the progress we are making regarding getting men and women involved in STEM and helping them to identify goals and opportunities they may not have necessarily considered before engagement with us.”
Mancy expressed his excitement about the organization's growth and the opportunities that P2P will collectively provide through connection with P2P’s community-based and non-carceral partners. “We want to continue to create a better, safer, and more inclusive environment that encompasses everyone because we believe everyone has value and deserves opportunities.”
Mancy states,”One of the significant areas that have been a surprise to our scholars and me is that in this new arena, nothing seems to be off the table as long as we apply ourselves and are diligent about what our particular investment is and what we have to bring to the table. That is encouraging, and we want to share that with every cohort.“
Looking ahead, P2P hopes to offer programming in all 50 states and scale to reach as many system-impacted individuals as possible. The organization's plans include building partnerships, connecting with allies, advocating for better access to higher education for justice-impacted individuals, creating a knowledgeable and dedicated team, and fostering community amongst scholars.
Dr. Andrisse states that at its core, “What makes P2P what it is, are the people. I am most honored to have been a part of so many people’s incredible journey-scholar and team member’s personal and professional journeys.” A lot has taken place in five short years, and P2P looks forward to what the future may hold for cohort 26 and beyond.