Our 2023-2024 Scholars have worked hard to get where they are
My name is Saifuddin Abdus-Samad, and I am a native New Yorker born and raised in Brooklyn. My academic journey began while incarcerated, serving a life sentence, with double digit years of prison ahead of me. I found solace in my academic pursuits. In those days, I was not thinking about earning a degree. In fact, with Pell grants having been taken away by the government from people in prison, prison-based college programs were scarce. There was no degree program. Truthfully, for me, it was a stress reliever. Learning took my mind off of my dire situation.
But seven-and-a-half years later, I earned a Master’s Degree through Mercy College. While incarcerated, instead of giving in to depression, or getting involved in the negative aspects of what you can find in any prison in America, I decided to become an asset to my environment. I taught classes for an organization known as Prisoners for Aids Counseling and Education (P.A.C.E.); I taught a General Psychology class to incoming students for Mercy College (my alma mater); and administered and taught classes at the mosque that I regularly attended. During those years, I realized that I had a love for seeking knowledge and sharing it with others through teaching.
While still incarcerated I was fortunate enough to get to know the Prison Education Program at Columbia University that seeks to bring Columbia education inside the New York prison system. When I came home, I sought out the JIE Scholars Program and, although I already have a Master’s Degree and cannot take undergraduate classes at Columbia I am working closely with the team at JIE who are helping me put together my application for a PhD program in Social Work. I am determined to get my PhD and continue to a career of teaching and mentoring others.
My name is Bilal Hassan and I am 32 years old. I am a dedicated scholar with a passion for philosophy and a keen interest in the classics. My life has been shaped by my time of incarceration, during which I discovered a profound fascination for the works of Greek philosophers, particularly Plato. As I delve into the intricacies of his teachings, I’ve come to recognize the enduring relevance of ancient wisdom in our modern world. My aspiration to be a part of the JIE scholars program reflects my commitment to higher learning and personal growth. With an unwavering curiosity, I aim to understand the underlying principles that guided thinkers like Plato and explore how their ideas continue to shape our society and its values. Enrolling as a philosophy major at Columbia University School of General Studies is the next step in my quest for knowledge. By leveraging the insights gained from my studies, I am determined to contribute to positive change in public policy, striving for a more harmonized and inclusive world for all.
Lonett “Cookie” Williams is a progressive native New Yorker whose life is marked with determination, tenacity and transformative resilience, traits that have earned her accolades, recognition, and failure. Lonett has excelled in entrepreneurship, empowerment, and advocacy. She serves as the President and CEO of Repurpose Thinking LLC and is the driving force behind Woman Unsilenced, an organization that empowers women and their families in the transformative power of reclaiming their sense of trauma-informed and post-incarceration self-worth.
Lonett’s pursuit of knowledge and personal growth is reflected in her list of
certifications. She is a certified Master Life Coach with specializations in Entrepreneurship and 5 levels of transformative development and in Mental Health First Aid and entrepreneurial Mindset. She has received the prestigious 2023 Joe Mann Award from Black Wall St., an honor that acknowledges her exceptional contributions to the field of Entrepreneurship.
As a single mother of two, Lonett explored various career paths before discovering her true calling in entrepreneurship, a passion that ignited within her at the young age of eleven. Her moniker “Cookie” symbolizes her warmth and approachability, embodying a spirit that remains unyielding in the face of adversity. Her unwavering faith fueled her transformation of personal experiences into a platform for change. Through mentoring incarcerated women and sharing her mastery of resilience, her desire is to be a
beacon of hope and inspiration impacting and uplifting women all over—the world.
My name is Lafayette Aziz Moore, and I am a native son of Harlem. I was born on the eve of a slain president, in the height of the civil rights movement to two teenage parents, and I was raised by my loving grandparents. I had what I would consider a happy childhood until one day my world changed forever. The woman who had taken me in, who had nurtured me, had taught me how to read, count, how say my abc’s and tie my shoes, was no longer here. My inability to process loss as well as disappointments led me to make decisions that altered my life and eventually landed me in prison, first as a juvenile, then as an adult. Being blessed to be a cohort in the JIE program gives me an opportunity to make up for all the lost time, the struggles, the heartaches, the disappointments and the past failures. This great opportunity allows me to try to right the wrongs I have made, to be in a position to help others, and to make my family proud of me. To eventually become part of the Columbia University Family is a dream come true, and I know that my dear grandmother is smiling down saying “YES!”
Jonathan Wrenn’s life is nothing short of remarkable. Born opioid-dependent in Virginia, he faced challenges from the outset. Adopted because his biological parents were in prison when he was born, Jonathan found comfort with his adopted mother until her untimely passing. However, adversity never defined him; instead, it fueled his determination to rise above it.
During his time in prison, marked by the loss of his grandfather and grandmother, Jonathan reached a turning point. Their final wish for him was to pursue an education, a path that led him to make significant progress in both his personal and academic life. Before joining Columbia University, while working full-time and facing the grief of his mother’s death, Jonathan completed his Associate’s Degree with a dual major at a community college, achieving a near-perfect GPA and earning multiple awards and scholarships.
Jonathan has been accepted to the School of General Studies at Columbia University with a major in Computer Science and Financial Economics and a generous scholarship, but he has decided to defer his admittance to GS for a year so that he can be a JIE Scholar along with other returning citizens. Outside of his studies, he loves exercise, cooking, and reading, which help keep him grounded. His biggest goal is to start his own organization to help at-risk youth and kids in foster care, making sure they get the chances they deserve. Jonathan’s life and belief in the power of learning is captured in Benjamin Franklin’s words: “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”
Growing up in Harlem I always had aspirations of becoming successful and growing beyond what my circumstances dictated. Unfortunately, because of nefarious thinking and false aspirations of what I thought success really meant, my life took a different path. Through poor choices, I served a sentence of fifteen -years-to-life in order to learn what really matters in life.
During my incarceration I involved myself in positive programs, such as the Youth Assistance Program, helping youth who were on verge of incarceration. I soon found a passion for helping others and continued my life in such a way as to be able to help others through positive programs in any way I found possible. Through those experiences I learned how to connect with and value others and, in turn, I learned how to value myself.
While still being incarcerated I had the honor to be a part of a pilot program called Cornell University Prison Education Program (CPEP). CPEP gave me a new sense of freedom and purpose that I never felt before, not even before my incarceration. The sense of accomplishment, fulfillment, and confidence through this newly-found, and serious, level of commitment became my focus. I learned through education and the edification that it creates, that I could become more than what my circumstances had predicted. When, with the help of Cornell University, I was able to finally graduate with my Associate’s Degree from Cayuga Community College, the feeling was indescribable. Through all my efforts and tribulations I also found out that the only person who ever stop me, was me. So, I continue on my path to help others by giving myself a foundation of success through education so that I teach those around me and beyond that we all can grow beyond our circumstances!
My name is James Currie, and I have a dream of graduating from Columbia University with a degree in political science major, because I want to be involved with public policy. I have an Associate’s Degree from Bard Microcollege and I want to be the go-to person who works with legislators to change laws and create a fairer justice system for everyone, regardless of their background or financial situation. I aspire to make a difference by advocating for justice and equality.
Irving Clark especially enjoys reading whodunits, and spending time with his family. He finds solace in higher learning and enjoys volunteering with justice impacted youth. He is currently employed by a large government agency and has served in the military.
His family is his driving force. He inspires his family members, and in turn they inspire him. Irving’s dad passed away a few years ago, and his mom is still thriving. Learning new things and meeting new people are near the top of his list of favorites
Being chosen for the JIE has become a source of gratitude, responsibility, and joy. Soon he intends to volunteer more of his time with justice impacted youth.
The Society of Fellows and
Heyman Center for the Humanities
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