First person: An educational journey that began in prison leads to jubilation at Yale

What follows was written by George Chochos, who on May 23 earned his Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School. That is a major accomplishment for any Yale student, but for Chochos, it was especially sweet. Just over 15 years ago, Chochos was sentenced to 14 years in prison, and began his formal college education through the Bard Prison Initiative. Today, he hopes to inspire others to overcome personal despair and realize the difference they can make in the world. This summer, he will serve as coordinator of the Yale President’s Public Service Fellowship program in the Office of New Haven and State Affairs.

Fifteen years ago I looked out of my prison cell in the infamous Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, NY. This prison sits on the majestic Hudson River, and my cell window offered a breathtaking view, except for one major flaw: I would have to see the prison bars along with the beauty of the Hudson.

These bars were a clear reminder of my status as a criminal, felon, and societal outcast. These bars motivated me to not just reflect on my life in ways that produced sorrow and remorse, but also to actively seek ways to change my life — so that, if given the opportunity to reenter society, I could do so in a way in which I would become an asset and not a liability to my community.

Education became my path to transforming my life. The Bard Prison Initiative and New York Theological Seminary's Master of Professional Studies program offered me extraordinary educational opportunities to learn a new vocabulary by which to critically reflect upon my life and society — to search deep within my soul to find love, compassion, forgiveness, and purpose. I could never have imagined that an educational journey that began in a prison cell could lead to a place like Yale.

I am the first in my immediate family to acquire a college degree and the only one in my family to attend an Ivy League institution. I came to Yale with a deep sense of calling that I was being afforded an opportunity that would not just change my life, but could help to shape the public discourse on higher education in prison and perhaps even change the national discourse on prison and criminal justice reform — from discussions that focused on models of retributive justice to conversations of restorative justice models where prisons would no longer be human warehouses of despair, but places of transformation and hope.

Since attending Yale, I have been afforded even more extraordinary opportunities. In an educational program, I have been able to work with children who have a parent or loved one incarcerated, and I have worked with organizations that seek to reduce gun violence in New Haven, Hartford, and Bridgeport. I have even had the privilege of speaking on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. on the topic of criminal justice reform. Most importantly, I have been able to reconnect with my son after 18 years.

At graduation, I received a card from men on the inside offering congratulations and indicating that I inspired hope that people can reach for their dreams — no matter how big — no matter how seemingly impossible. This is what a Yale degree means to me. This is what someone "like me" being in one of the greatest educational institutions in the world means, that I can instill hope and motivate people on the margins of society to dream and aspire to greatness — that one's life and mistakes can be redeemed in ways that lead to making society better, by helping our youth who struggle in our inner cities to aspire to greatness and not to become a statistic or a commodity in the prison industrial complex.

I hope, ultimately, that my time at Yale will demonstrate that people who return from prisons can live productive lives, in which they enhance their communities, become an asset to their families, and serve to end the destructive cycles that have trapped too many into lives of despair that only lead to sorrow and pain. I began my educational journey in a prison, and I desire to go as far as I can by pursuing a Ph.D. and serving communities impacted by crime and the criminal justice system, as well as to teach in college-in-prison programs to offer the opportunity to others like myself. For the next part of my journey, I have been accepted into the Master of Sacred Theology program at Yale Divinity School, and I am pursuing serving a local church.

Read more about Chochos’ experience here.