Resilience by Jonathan Wrenn
Author's Note: I am a formerly incarcerated college student who plans to start a non-profit organization for foster care children and at-risk youth. Here is my essay:
Due to my parents’ struggles with addiction, I was born dependent on opioids and suffered painful withdrawals as a newborn. I was put up for adoption and did not know my biological parents, though I later discovered they were incarcerated as a result of their drug use. The circumstances of my birth severely impacted the way I viewed myself growing up. With the belief that my own parents didn’t want me, I never felt like I was “enough.” This led to a persistent struggle with low self-esteem which made me more susceptible to suffer from mental illness, incarceration, and abuse— all things I have experienced.
When I was 15 years old, my adoptive mother was diagnosed with cancer. Learning about her diagnosis was a hard blow for me because we were inseparable. I couldn’t imagine life without her. Since I was adopted at birth, she was the only parent I had known. The news of my mom’s cancer was on my mind all the time. To escape it, I began to abuse drugs and alcohol. The constant need to escape my reality grew into a lifestyle fueled by drugs and crime, which would lead me to juvenile detention in my teenage years.
I was convicted at age 18 and served a two year sentence (2018 - 2020). During this challenging period, my biggest fear came true, I learned that my mother had six months to live. Losing her was like losing my only real connection to this world. While incarcerated, I was without drugs, alcohol, or friends to take my mind off reality. For the next two years, I made friends with discomfort. I stared down my biggest fears, regrets, and mistakes in a small cell with white concrete walls and a metal bunk. Unfortunately, not even six months into my sentence my grandmother’s cancer also returned.
With rapid speed, it had spread to her brain, liver, and lungs. She only had a short time left. The last few days of my grandmother’s life I talked to her through the phone in prison. Each day, she was becoming less and less coherent, and I was losing her quickly. I remember her constantly telling me that she loved me and all she wanted was for me to go to college. On her last day she began to slip into a coma while we were speaking on the phone, and she was losing both her hearing and consciousness. I had to scream into the phone in the hopes that she could hear me tell her that I loved her and that I was going to make her proud.
I began to think about my actions and how I could pull myself out of this situation and change my life. I reflected on all the things that led to my incarceration: my low self-esteem, my battle with depression, and my rigid, pessimistic mindset. I began to think about what I would like to do with my life. I let myself dream. I thought about how if I had different resources to help me in my childhood, how my path may have not led me to incarceration. I dreamed of being a founder of an organization or business that would work to provide at-risk youth with counseling, mentoring, educational resources, and mental health services. It was then that I realized that I wanted to pursue a business degree to make this a reality.
To make this dream a reality, I am pursuing a well-rounded business education. This will help develop skills such as financial analysis, organizational management, and entrepreneurship that I can apply to build my own company to help other people returning from prison. Losing my grandmother put me on a journey of grief, but also growth. This deep spiral of destruction and loss has served as a catalyst for me to pursue education and pull myself out of poverty. I believe higher education is the only pathway towards ending this cycle of incarceration and pain for me.
As soon as I was released in 2020, I enrolled full-time in my local community college and began pursuing an Associates degree. I made this commitment while also taking care of my sick mother who was still battling her own cancer. I was excited to begin learning again and was able to perform at the top of my classes. While I was steadily working and pursuing my education, my mother unexpectedly passed away in April of 2022. Due to her prior chronic health challenges, she had outstanding medical debt of over $100,000. Although I had been working full time, while in school and taking care of her, I was not able to earn enough to cover all of her debt.
After my mother’s passing I had to support myself financially, pay for an estate lawyer for legal assistance, as well as perform upkeep and repair her home. Afterwards, I continued to pursue new educational opportunities and enrolled in Justice Through Code (JTC) at Columbia, a competitive programming bootcamp for formerly incarcerated individuals. Throughout the JTC application process, I remember reflecting on how far I had come while overcoming both family and personal obstacles. Higher education has become incredibly important to me.
Sadly, I have witnessed that in low-income communities such as mine, obtaining higher education is very uncommon. I’ve also learned that only roughly 14% of low-income students graduate from college. A quote from activist, entrepreneur, and formerly incarcerated speaker “Chef Jeff” that I love is, “Education is Liberation”. This resonates with me because education has already begun to truly transform my own life, and I know it can be a life-changing experience for many other justice-impacted individuals.
In conclusion, my journey has been one of immense struggle and heartache. However, through it all, I have found purpose and meaning in pursuing higher education. I hope to be able to inspire others to pursue their own dreams and transform their own lives through education.
Jonathan's submission explored so many facets of loss, relationships, and perseverance common to people in the criminal legal system. The desire to do better in the face of such adversity was a common theme - a handful of essays used the phrase "my setback will be my setup," as was the notion of wanting to make a loved one proud through educational attainment.
The accompanying cat tattoo is hobo art. It means "a kind old lady lives here," and the purple blob sits on my left arm, close to my heart. There aren't government statistics for how many times a family member passes away when a person is incarcerated, but it is common to experience that grief, alone, in a cell. My mom also had cancer when I entered the carceral system and passed away six months into my sentence. She couldn't stay off chemo long enough to get that tattoo herself, and it is how she is going to attend my own graduation with me.
Jonathan, I think both our moms would be proud of our subsequent life choices.
Photo Credit: 2.0 Dalton