Penn students adjust to college life after prison

Before coming to Penn, a sophomore earning his bachelor’s degree in the College of Liberal and Professional Studies served 18 months in a juvenile facility after being arrested for gun possession at the age of 16.

Just like his classmates in the College of Arts and Sciences, he has to labor over Renaissance literature he doesn’t enjoy and waits eagerly to study an author he actually likes. But unlike most of his classmates, he’s past the age of 30 — and before enrolling at Penn, he spent time in prison.

A sophomore earning his bachelor’s degree in the College of Liberal and Professional Studies, who wishes to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of the issue, served 18 months in a juvenile facility after being arrested for gun possession at the age of 16.

Although he initially received a five-year sentence, he said he spent most of that time on probation. It would be more than a decade after his release from the facility that he would end up enrolling at Penn.

Since 2007, the Common Application has required prospective undergraduate students to list any misdemeanors, felonies or other crimes committed and attach an essay giving the date of the incident, the surrounding circumstances and a reflection on “what [they] have learned from the experience.”

This year, for the first time, the application also contains a clause saying that an applicant does not need to disclose this information if the conviction has been expunged or pardoned, according to Bev Taylor, director and founder of the New York-based college consulting service Ivy Coach.

The process works similarly for graduate and LPS students at Penn, who have been required to list any prior convictions on their application for the past two years, said LPS Vice Dean Nora Lewis. Previously, students only had to disclose any breaches of academic integrity, a topic still covered in the essay portion of the LPS application.

When the LPS sophomore applied to Penn in 2006, none of the forms asked about a criminal record — but he nonetheless chose to discuss it in his essay.

“I wanted to find the space between giving an explanation and an excuse,” he said. Having dropped out of school after the eighth grade, he said he “felt there was a huge gaping hole” looking at his life between the ages of 13 and 28 or 29, and he wanted to “explain that hole.”

When considering essays that describe an applicant’s criminal background, Taylor said admissions officers pay particular attention to how students explain their actions and reflect on whether the experience made him or her “a better person.”

The LPS sophomore said that his essay focused on “owning” his mistakes, including decisions he made after getting out of prison.

Directly after his release, he started attending community college and missed enough class to fail out after one semester, prompting him to work full time for about four years until he enrolled again.

It was during this second period in community college that some of his professors recommended that he apply to a private university like Penn.

He stressed that there is no clear-cut explanation for the path that has taken him to LPS, and he said he avoids sharing information about his background in class for fear of being unfairly typecast.

“I want people to take me for what I’m saying and who I am,” he said, adding that he does not want all of his comments in class to be processed through the stereotype of what an “older, ’reformed convict’” would say.

Initially intending to pursue psychology and social work so he could “give back” like some of the people who have helped him get back on track, the LPS student said a challenging English course in community college changed his mind. He now plans on pursuing a doctorate in English after graduating from Penn, which he hopes to do by spring 2012.

He explained that he does not consider this a major deviation from his original career goal of contributing to the community, citing free community events he used to organize in his full-time job, as well as the guidance that can be provided by an English professor.

“You can help people in a multi-tiered way,” he said.


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