Anthony Johnson knows a thing or two about dreams. A College Success Advisor at Graduate! Philadelphia, Johnson spends his days helping returning citizens fulfill their goal of obtaining a college degree. For him, a typical day includes reaching out to clients and local universities to support formerly incarcerated folks on their path to graduation.
Johnson began working for Graduate! Philadelphia, a non-profit that aims to help adults receive college degrees, in 2016. However, he has over twenty years of experience working as an educator in the reentry community. In 1995, he founded the Dream Field Academy, an organization that connects formerly incarcerated folks return to civilian life by providing education support. In his role at Graduate! Philadelphia, Johnson is responsible for supporting many of the organization’s incarcerated or recently released clients, guiding them through the college process from start to finish.
For returning citizens, the path to a college diploma often begins while still incarcerated. Johnson presents at college workshops in local jails and prisons, where he connects with incarcerated people and explains how they can attain degrees. Many of his clients earn college credit while imprisoned and fulfill their degrees upon their return home.
Under the Obama administration, Pell grants for college programming within carceral facilities became more widely available. Johnson cites the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program as a major milestone for many of his clients, who he helps to complete their degrees upon their release.
As clients transition back to life at home, Graduate! Philadelphia pairs them with one of their nine partner institutions. Alvernia University, Chestnut Hill College, Community College of Philadelphia, Esperanza College, Jefferson, Lancaster Bible College, Peirce College, Temple University and Thomas Edison State University comprise the Graduate! Philadelphia coalition of schools. Graduate! College Success Advisors, such as Johnson, work to ensure that “comebackers” find the school that best fits their unique goals.
Graduate! Philadelphia has a considerable impact in the city’s adult education community. According to their website, “more than 6,200 adults have received one-on-one advising services. Over 2,500 adults have gone back to college with Graduate! Philadelphia’s help and over 1,000 two- or four-year degrees have been conferred.”
In addition to helping thousands of free adults in Philadelphia return to college, Graduate! Philadelphia plans to continue expanding their programming for returning citizens. Right now, they are finalizing a formal partnership with the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, also a member of the Philadelphia Reentry Coalition, which will enable them to further empower both inmates and correctional employees to pursue higher education.
Johnson estimates that Graduate! Philadelphia has helped about thirty-five formerly incarcerated people enroll in its partner universities. Among those students, several have graduated and began to pursue careers. Among the organization’s outstanding graduates is Joe Robinson. After serving time in prison, Robinson began to pursue higher education with the assistance of Johnson and the Graduate! Philadelphia team. Robinson earned a degree at the Community College of Philadelphia, and last month, he graduated from Temple University with a bachelor’s degree in social work.
“He’s paying it forward now, and he’s never going back to prison. Not with his education,” Johnson proudly says.
Today, Robinson works as a member of the Philadelphia Prison Society to counsel other returning citizens. Robinson estimates that around sixty percent of his clients find full time jobs. Robinson’s work in the community, and his academic successes, illustrate the immense impact that education can have in aiding returning citizens’ paths to achieving their goals.
In recent years, Graduate! Philadelphia has worked with Judge Timothy Rice, the US Magistrate Judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to provide educational opportunities as an alternative to lengthy probation sentences. Judge Rice started a program for people who are serving federal time, encouraging them to sign up with Graduate! Philadelphia. Johnson often presents to those in Rice’s program, holding information sessions in his courtroom for prospective clients to learn about Graduate! Philadelphia’s efforts and the importance of procuring a college degree.
Johnson believes in the power of education as a key tool in prison reform. Reflecting on the importance of education programs for returning citizens, he notes, “The numbers don’t lie. If you give academic opportunity, once they come out, they’re not going back.”