In this month’s edition of our podcast, “Higher Ed News You Can Use from Onondaga Community College” we’re talking about the Right Turn Career-Focused Transition Initiative, more commonly known as the Right Turn Program. It helps students who have been involved in the juvenile justice system by assisting them with self-exploration, career exploration and career planning.
On the podcast you will meet Derrick Zalewski who is Assistant Director for the Right Turn program. We’ll also introduce you to student Chris White. He came to OCC after spending more than a decade in prison, utilized services provided by the Right Turn Program and is now an honor student who will earn his degree next summer.
The Right Turn Program is located in the Community Care Hub on the first floor of the Gordon Student Center in room 134.
It’s never too late to get it right. Chris White is proof. He’s a 35-year-old student who is the proud father of a soon-to-be 2-year-old daughter. He’s a high honors student who will earn his first college degree next summer. He’s also a survivor of the life he used to live. “When I reflect on where I’ve come from I get happy. There were so many days that were dark. I couldn’t think about what I’d be doing at 35 or if I’d even get that far. I’d just think about today and then the next day. Now I’m thinking about where I’m going to college next, a job, a career and providing for my daughter!”
Chris’ life started rough. His mom left when he was three. His father battled substance abuse. Eventually he went to live with his aunt whom he now refers to as his mom. By the time he was a teenager he was headed down the wrong road. “I didn’t know how to express myself as a lot of people at 13 don’t. I had a rebellious streak where I got into bad things that weren’t productive. I was very angry and going through a lot of different things. I was reckless.”
Chris dropped out of high school. He was running the streets and involved with gangs. Eventually the life he was living caught up with him. Chris was arrested, convicted and spent more than a decade behind bars. Getting caught and getting clean turned out to be exactly what he needed. “It was through being incarcerated I figured out I love to learn, I love to read, I love to talk ideas and thoughts. As bad as that experience was there was a lot of good that came out of it. It allowed me to have a different and broad perspective.”
Chris passed his GED while he was behind bars. In the fall of 2016 he decided to come to OCC. Chris went to the Community Care Hub on campus where students receive assistance with non-academic needs. That’s where he became involved with the Right Turn Career-Focused Transition Initiative. It provides a career development process for youth that are involved with or at risk of becoming involved with the juvenile justice system. Through the Center for Community Services Chris took a trip to Albany to meet with lawmakers. “It was a really eye-opening experience for me. I thought, ‘I’d really like to be at the table having conversations with people about laws and policies that effect people and neighborhoods, especially neighborhoods I’ve grown up in like the south side of Syracuse.’ We are underrepresented in a lot of different areas. Something about that trip really spoke to me and I felt I wanted to major in Human Services so I can work with and help people.”
During the spring semester Chris was inducted into the college’s chapter of international honor society Phi Theta Kappa. In the audience were the two biggest influences in his life; his father who got clean as Chris was being incarcerated and his uncle who convinced Chris to go to college after he got out of prison. “I was proud of what I’d accomplished but my dad and uncle were exceptionally proud. I never graduated high school and got my GED while I was incarcerated. To come here and be inducted into the honor society was really big stuff. It was a great evening for me and it was very encouraging. I loved having my hard work be noticed and for two important people in my life to be there for it.”
After he earns his degree next summer Chris plans to transfer and continue working towards a career in Human Services. “Having been through what I’ve been through I bring a different perspective. I can say to people, ‘If you stop using you can get somewhere you want to be in life. You can get to places you stopped dreaming about.’ I’ve had a really fulfilling experience despite the dark period in my life. Today I’m afforded the opportunity to be an active participant in my life. For a long time, I was captive to my thinking and my way of living. Now it’s different. The way I see the world is different.”
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