My motivation for becoming a change leader can be best described through my personal experiences with higher education, addiction, and the criminal justice system. As a young independent immigrant child, I dreamt about attending college and getting an education. My parents relocated from Pakistan to America in the hopes that their children would take advantage of this country's academic successes and have equal access to good education.
As a transfer student from a local community college in Weatherford, Texas, I was accepted into the University of North Texas. I was focused, dedicated, and on track. However, college life posed many challenges – the pressure and the competition were constant, and as a young woman, I had to grow up fast and learn to navigate the foreign educational spaces on my own. There was a lack of support for students like me; however, I did not let this slow me down and kept my focus on maintaining good grades. From receiving recognition awards honoring my performance in US History and American Government from Weather College to getting accepted to the Honor Society at UNT, things seemed to be going well. In college, I was an active member of organizations, including Alpha Epsilon Delta (AED), UNICEF, and Women's Health Association Team over the course of three years. I worked hard to support myself and developed a well-disciplined lifestyle of school, sports, and leisure. I graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science in Biology/a minor in Chemistry in 2010 and planned a path to medical school. My future looked bright and hopeful.
Unfortunately, after college, my life took a turn for me. I found myself buried in a downward spiral of substance abuse disorder, and over the next four years, I struggled to keep my life in order. The eventual result of this lifestyle was my first arrest in 2014, facing a 20-year sentence incarcerated in Texas. I felt utterly damaged, hopeless in my addiction, and distraught with reality. This was a pivotal juncture where I was forced to make a choice between continuing on a destructive path or changing my life for the better. I chose to change for the better.
While I was in prison, I found my journey into recovery, self-reflection, and accountability, wanting to continue new learning and growth. But with the lack of access to programming, I realized that many women felt discouraged from thinking about education. From the long waiting lists to enroll in any vocational training courses to constant dehumanization from the correctional staff, many incarcerated women felt pressured to get involved in the wrong matters of prison life. I realized that my education had come to a halt, which was devastating. Something had to change. I began to advocate for myself, and with many years of appeals, while understanding law from a critical lens, I found a way to have my 20-year sentence overturned. I was sent to a Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility (SAFPF) for eight months before my release. In the very first month, I became the chief member of the cognitive department. For the next seven months, I facilitated groups with over 150 participants, focusing on rehabilitation, counseling, and leadership development. Building solid relationships with my peers, I learned the value of community support. I developed a strong passion for helping others through their recovery and saw how this work made a positive difference.
Upon my release in 2020, I relocated to Los Angeles to continue the momentum towards successful reentry and find a pathway back into academics. I realized that within society, being formerly incarcerated carried with it stigmas and systematic barriers that would have a lasting impact on the trajectory of my life. I began researching reentry and higher education resources for formerly incarcerated people in Los Angeles. I found out that there is a large community here that helps people like me reintegrate back into society. I connected with folks in programs such as Project Rebound and Rising Scholars. These programs help formerly incarcerated individuals pursue higher education and connect with other reentry resources that will help their reentry journeys, including housing, employment, and financial support. Through networking and mentorship support, I was accepted into the Anti-Recidivism Coalition Housing Program (ARC) in 2021, where I spent the next twelve months with stable housing support and be able to focus on my future. I started to get involved in the advocacy for the social justice system for formerly incarcerated—working with organizations such as Rising Scholars at Mt.San Antonio Community College, facilitating ‘Intro to Career Development’ classes at Prison Education Project (PEP), working as a student auditor for inside-out classes with the Justice Education Initiative at Claremont Colleges. Through getting involved with platforms such as the Education Trust, Prison to PhD (P2P), and Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Networking (FICGN), I connected with other mentors willing to help me professionally with my higher education journey. The empowerment and support gained through these experiences have forever changed my life. It opened doors to educational opportunities to help me explore various Masters and PhD programs in fields of biological sciences and begin to create a portfolio towards application processes.
It has been over two years now, and my personal and professional life in advocacy has undoubtedly been transformed through the lens of higher education, allowing me to dedicate myself along with my peers towards our mission to serve our community in promoting education embracing both social justice and the paradigm of equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Incarceration allowed me to understand the importance of continuing my education, a time for self-reflection and growth giving me a unique perspective to see things through a critical lens. There is a vast system of barriers of inequalities and injustice among the communities of formerly incarcerated. We face educational disadvantages time over time. Higher education allows us as a community to find ways to achieve social and economic success, increase workforce productivity by reducing recidivism, and diversify dynamics in education. Education is transformative, restorative, and healing for our community. Everyone has the right to equal access regardless of the past mistakes. I hope to inspire others to become part of the movement to open doors for formerly incarcerated folks and empower others to pursue their dreams.
This essay was received from the JSTOR Access in Prison Student Advisory Board. Rabia has accomplished a great deal since leaving prison, and the constellation of services she used to move forward is an example of the community-based supports that are crucial during reentry. I linked to the resources she mentioned to encourage people to revisit it - Rabia's submission offers a roadmap. Many of these programs are national, and the ones that are local are worth studying if you are trying to build resources in your own higher education community.