Second Chances Are Limited

Author's Bio: Please do not publish my name if you decide to print. I am in a Physics PhD program in the Midwest. I was completing an undergrad degree when I drove under the influence and almost took someone's life. I thought I would be a high school science teacher, and I can't do that now with a felony record. I can only teach at the collegiate level, and will probably have to move to a more felon-friendly state to find work.

Being a PhD student is a challenge in itself, but being on parole while pursuing higher education is a whole different ball game. I am studying physics, which is difficult enough as a woman, and the weight of a criminal record alienates me even more.

On the one hand, I feel grateful for the opportunity to pursue a PhD. I know that many people who have been through the criminal justice system are not afforded such opportunities. However, on the other hand, the reality of my situation is that my past continues to haunt me.

Parole restrictions dictate where I can go and when, making it difficult to attend academic conferences or even visit potential employers. I no longer ask to go to conferences and I miss important collaboration opportunities that could advance my career. I am constantly reminded of the stigma associated with having a criminal record, and I fear the professional repercussions if people were to find out about my past.

The truth is, I don't feel like I can be honest about my conviction history. I worry that if my peers or professors knew I had spent time in prison, they would view me differently or assume that I am not capable of academic success. This fear of judgment and rejection makes it hard for me to fully participate in college life.

I am acutely aware of the need to prove myself, to show that I am more than my criminal record. But even with my achievements and accomplishments, I cannot shake the feeling that I am still being judged by my past. It is a constant reminder that I am not like other students, that I do not have the same freedom to pursue my dreams without the weight of my history holding me back.

As a PhD student, the pressure to succeed is intense. I am expected to produce high-quality research and teach the undergrads. But how can I do that when I am constantly battling the stigma associated with being in prison? How can I fully participate in the academic community when I feel like I have to hide a part of who I am? I google search myself to check for references to my conviction from 10 years ago to assess the probability my students can find out about it.

It is frustrating and disheartening to know that my past continues to impact my present and future. This sentence is just never-ending. Education is the key to breaking the cycle of incarceration, and I am committed to using my experiences to help others, but I am not even allowed to communicate with people who understand me. Sometimes I wish I went into counseling or law, where having been in prison can be an asset.

Despite the challenges, I am grateful for the opportunity to pursue a PhD. I hope that someday, society will recognize that people who have been through the criminal justice system are more than their past mistakes. Until then, I will keep going with my head down, working my way through the last of this degree.