EMU pilot program aims to remove barriers to college education for the formerly incarcerated

"It's a change, a shift that starts to make you feel like a person."

When Adam Kouraimi was nearing the end of his prison term in Jackson, he wanted to pursue a college degree, but assumed universities weren't interested in responding to a handwritten letter from an incarcerated person.


"I wrote to the University of Michigan (U-M) in January of 2019 and waited months," the Ypsilanti resident says. "Finally, in September, when I was already getting ready to go home, a packet from U-M that was dated from July showed up. I never got any notice from the prison mailroom that I had anything [to pick up]."


Kouraimi is hoping his firsthand experience with the challenges of pursuing higher education after incarceration will be a benefit to Eastern Michigan University's (EMU) new Returning Citizens Fellows (RCF) pilot program. The program is a collaboration between EMU; the Washtenaw County-based nonprofit A Brighter Way, which provides services to returning citizens; and the Michigan Department of Corrections' (MDOC) Offender Success program. Kouraimi is both a member of the team that's getting RCF up and running, and a student in the program's first cohort.


The program aims to remove barriers to success for formerly incarcerated people who want to get a college education. It provides its cohort members a success coach, community work study opportunities, help navigating the financial aid process, and resources to help each cohort obtain a four-year degree from EMU. The initial cohort for the pilot program will be small, supporting five to seven fellows, all of whom must be referred to the program by A Brighter Way. A grant from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation will pay for the success coach and other resources for participants.


Kouraimi says he doesn't believe MDOC or major universities are purposely brushing off formerly incarcerated people who want to pursue a degree, but the inflexibility of both prison mail policies and university application timelines create barriers.


Jessica "Decky" Alexander, director of academic engagement programs with Engage@EMU, says the fellowship program is a natural extension of work EMU has already been doing with the Washtenaw County Sheriff's community outreach team. That program hires those who have been involved with the criminal justice system to do community outreach with the goal of reducing recidivism.


The sheriff's program and RCF are both responding to Washtenaw County's recidivism rate, which is 42% higher than the state average. Allan Newman, chairperson of A Brighter Way and an advisory committee member for the Offender Success program, says factors from housing to employment to transportation influence that statistic.

Allan Newman.

"Nobody seems to know it, and nobody is addressing the issue," Newman says.


Alexander says one of Washtenaw County's major strengths is actually a negative when it comes to recidivism.


"Washtenaw County is one of the most educated counties in the state, and as a result, the job market is really competitive," Alexander says.


Getting a GED is the only educational option available in the county jail, and there are no other major educational opportunities for those in jail or prison at the county level, she says.


"There are three colleges here, and every semester [produces] a new workforce," Kouraimi says. "If I was an employer, I might wonder, 'Why take a chance?'"


Cozine Welch, executive director for A Brighter Way, says most people who end up in prison were already "getting less than the average citizen is supposed to," and imprisonment creates "deficiency on top of deficiency."

Cozine Welch.

"When they're released, you have to allow them to raise themselves up to a level of success where they can feel pride, and you have to recognize that you have to put specialized care and attention into them," Welch says. "Smart people come home from prison and have a drive to study. It's not that they didn't want a degree or were incapable, but what's stopping them is simply that there's no procedure or protocol in place for them."


Alexander calls the RCF partnership "highly reciprocal," noting that equity, inclusion, and transparency are among the program's values.


"We're going to learn from A Brighter Way, and those who are mentors and mentees and board members, how to serve those who have been incarcerated," Alexander says.

Decky Alexander.

She notes that EMU has already made some changes as an institution, in consultation with MDOC, to the documentation required of formerly incarcerated individuals who want to attend EMU.


Sidney Anderson Dodge, a graduate assistant with Engage@EMU, is part of the RCF team. She notes that each member of RCF's first cohort is facing unique challenges and circumstances. One might have never gone to college, while another might have completed a few semesters and racked up debt that must be dealt with before they can begin classes at EMU.


"If someone like me has been a college advisor for years with all these skills and experiences, and I don't know something, how are they going to get an answer if I don't work my butt off for them?" she says. "I'd like to see this program bloom into something national. There's a lot of interest in this type of work, and we're laying strong, foundational groundwork."


Welch says the status quo allows universities to totally overlook the formerly incarcerated as potential students, and keeps MDOC and universities from communicating. He says the movers and shakers at higher educational institutions have "no incentive to know anything about you" if you're formerly incarcerated, and that needs to change.


"We as formerly incarcerated people look at institutions as places not very welcoming to us. So to see EMU looking to let people in, it's a change, a shift that starts to make you feel like a person," Welch says. "As we start reaching out for broader community support, it changes the way they look at formerly incarcerated folks, seeing us as people with potential who need assistance, not as someone hardened who can't be helped. That is one of the most beautiful things that is happening."


More information about the fellowship program is available here.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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