By Kelly McLeod

As a young kid, I loved school. I enjoyed learning, writing, reading, doing projects, and engaging with my classmates and teacher. I was a quick learner and subjects came easily to me. This love of school and learning came to an abrupt halt when my seventh-grade teacher ridiculed me in front of the class after I asked a question. Everyone laughed and I became the butt of ongoing jokes throughout the rest of the school year. I was mortified. From that day forward, I shut down. I hated school and I never again raised my hand to ask questions or participate in class discussions. I struggled during my high school years, barely graduating when I do not believe I should have. After school, I immediately joined the workforce as a forklift operator until I was arrested and sentenced to serve life in prison at the age of 19.

It felt as if my life was over before it began. I had little hope of a future, and I could not see anything beyond the looming decades of my sentence that I was to serve. I simply existed, locked in my cell for 20 hours a day and with little to occupy myself with besides reading and working out, both of which I did… a lot. I read everything that I could get my hands on. Reading was a way for me to escape the realities of life in prison and to stimulate my mind. I was hungry to learn, but reading books in my cell only took me so far.

Four years into my incarceration a friend recommended I enroll in college courses as a way to occupy my time. I did, and this decision altered the course of the rest of my life. I began my college journey taking classes that sounded interesting. I spent hours reading, studying and writing. I felt the old sense of love for learning reignite inside of me. I did well on assignments and received good grades on tests. This built confidence in me as a student, and I knew I could continue doing well as long as I put forth the effort.

In 2019, I began to hear rumors of a UCI LIFTED Bachelor’s degree program for people who qualified. I could not imagine earning a BA, let alone one from a school as prestigious as UCI. This inspired me to graduate in order to take advantage of this opportunity of a lifetime. In 2022, I graduated with honors from Southwestern Community College with an Associate’s degree in Sociology.

That same year, I started my first quarter of UCI. I was terrified. I questioned whether I could maintain the heavy workload of four classes, let alone at the university level. I doubted myself and questioned whether I was smart enough to succeed. The classes I enrolled in were much more challenging and demanding than I was accustomed to. It quickly became apparent that university expectations are different from what I experienced at community college. I poured all of my efforts into managing my time to meet the demands of balancing four classes while simultaneously working as a service dog trainer, participating in self-help groups, and continuing to work on my personal recovery.

I absorbed everything I could from my professors and the assigned texts.  I learned to critically read, write, and think. These skills opened my mind to higher-order thinking and understanding, and permitted me to articulate myself more effectively. I worked hard, pushed myself, and realized I could be successful.

Now, it feels as if the world has limitless possibilities. For the first time in my life, I believe I can accomplish anything I set my mind to. I no longer feel like a humiliated kid who believes the lie that he is not smart enough, good enough, or worthy enough to succeed. Today, I hear the voice of Professor Pablo Torres reverberating in my mind, “The only person who can determine your value is you!” This epiphany sparked a profound desire that touched my very core. I have chosen a new future: after earning my Bachelor’s degree, I will attend graduate school.

Higher education has unfettered and expanded my mind and forever changed my life. Faulty beliefs and negativity no longer hold me captive. My journey with LIFTED and the lessons I learned from all of the professors transformed me into a more compassionate and empathetic human being and fed my soul. Upon release, my intention is to give back to the incarcerated community by returning as a professor. I believe my example will encourage others to participate in the transformative power of higher education.