The Virginia Community College System (VCCS) recently announced Rappahannock Community College’s (RCC) Second Chance Pell Experimental Site program as a winner of an Excellence in Education Award. According to the VCCS’s website, “The awards program provides an annual opportunity to showcase, celebrate and share ideas and innovations that contribute to improving student outcomes and reaching strategic goals across the VCCS. The theme for the 2020 awards is Imagine the Possibilities.” 

At the time of the award, RCC’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Site program was just one of two in Virginia, and 63 nationally. Capitalizing on the success of these colleges, the Second Chance Pell Grant program has since invited 67 additional colleges to participate, including two Virginia community colleges. Programs like this collaboration between RCC and Haynesville Correctional Center (HCC) are vital because they provide access to an underserved population, help prepare incarcerated students to re-enter their communities with job-ready, critical thinking and writing skills, and help the state deal with a shortage of skilled labor.

The partnership with Haynesville Correctional Center started in 2008 utilizing funding from various nonprofit foundations. In 2016 the Department of Education began a national pilot program to allow incarcerated students to use Federal Pell Grants after completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Colleges were encouraged to apply to participate in the program, and RCC was one of 67 colleges initially chosen nationwide. Rappahannock Community College at Haynesville Correctional Center’s Second Chance Pell Program allows the incarcerated students to pay for tuition, books, and supplies with Pell funding. A generous grant from the Laughing Gull Foundation funds a dedicated RCC staff member who serves as the liaison with HCC and offsets incidental student costs not covered by the Pell Grants.

The program aims to reduce recidivism by offering inmates with a good record of behavior within the institution and a General Education Certificate (GED) or high school diploma the opportunity to obtain a two-year Associate of Arts and Sciences degree. Virginia Department of Corrections also offers certification and licensing in various vocations. 

HCC inmate and RCC student Chris Holman recently shared his story. He and his older brother were raised by a single mom doing her best in a difficult situation. For Holman, life on the north side of Richmond revolved around drugs, violence, and poverty. Like any young man he wanted excitement, the ability to make his own choices, to go further, and to live better. There were ways to “get ahead” and Holman took them. At that time in his life, college wasn’t a realistic consideration. Drug distribution provided immediate profit and a quick solution to many of his daily challenges.  

At 19 Holman’s choices landed him in jail for a stint and again in 2014 for which he’s currently finishing up a seven-year sentence. With a lot of time to think, Holman reflected on his past lifestyle and came to the conclusion that the reward versus risk was hopelessly unbalanced. “There’s just no winning in it,” he says. Holman says he decided he needed to “get everything out of the experience while I’m here” and to “take advantage of the opportunities while I have them.”  

He began by getting a Virginia State Barbering license. This accomplishment broadened his vision of a future outside of prison and led him to RCC. In 2018, Holman tentatively took prerequisite courses in English and became comfortable with the idea of being a college student. Eventually he realized there was nothing but himself stopping him from obtaining a two-year degree.

Earning a college degree while incarcerated poses many challenges that other traditional students don’t face. Classes at Haynesville are held without computers and internet access; homework and studying is done in noisy dormitories; and all assignments are hand written. “The program opened my eyes; the teachers are motivating” he says, adding with a joyful smile, “I ask a lot of questions.”

He delights in learning and reads everything he can. Up until recently, before classes went entirely online, Holman enjoyed getting a glimpse of the outside world via his teachers’ in-person instruction. Dr. Matthew Brent, Dr. Kelly Osuanah, and Ms. Therese Johnson all bring an upbeat attitude and help him feel comfortable. Dr. Gena McKinley not only helped to foster his love of writing but also helped him navigate so much about college, including his future educational options. Holman says, “She has taught me so much; she’s the best.” Holman feels that all RCC instructors want to see their students win, and from where he stands that is no small deal. 

Holman is on track to graduate with a 4.0 GPA and an Associate’s degree. After his release, he plans to apply to 4-year colleges. Due in part to his accomplishments and his challenges, Holman says, “I’ve become a better person. I’m proud of who I am and I’m still getting better. I’m not at my peak yet.”

He has a desire to give back and to help others like him beat the odds; to help them “turn the tide and show them another way.” He also has a deep love of sports and can see himself as a sports reporter. 

Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, Holman spent Tuesday through Friday working in the prison’s barbershop during the day and attended classes every evening. He says Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays were dedicated to studying.

At the end of the day, when he lays his head down and closes his eyes, instead of imagining going back to his old life, Holman sees himself moving forward into a bright future with purpose. “We are incredibly proud of students like Chris Holman and the program we offer in partnership with Haynesville Correctional Center,” says RCC President Shannon Kennedy. She adds, “This program helps us live our vision of transforming lives.”

Rappahannock Community College is celebrating 50 years of breaking down barriers to education in the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck. Five degrees, 6 certificates, and 26 career and workforce studies programs are offered through RCC, in addition to nearly 40 guaranteed admissions agreements with colleges and universities across the state and region. RCC graduates form the backbone of the local economy—healthcare providers, bankers, lawyers, small business owners, and tradespeople. It’s hard to go through a day without being served by an RCC alum in some way. For more information, visit rappahanock.edu.