PUPiL Blog: Going Straight to University in Birmingham

'Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.' Mandela, N. 2003

My name is Sharonjit Kaur, I am a Working with Children, Young People and Families Graduate and proudly part of the Newman University and PUPIL (Prison University Partnerships in Learning) alumni. This post is about my experience as a Newman student, going into a special setting to benefit from a different type of education. It also entails some words and reflections from three amazing people (Melvin, Devon and Baz) that came all the way from the U.S to speak at two events that my lecturer the great Dr Karen Graham organised. 

But I’ll start from the beginning... 

I was lucky enough to be chosen by Dr Karen Graham and Dr Daniel Whisker to take part in the first pipeline project called 'Going Straight to University' (October 2016). This involved taking six students from Newman University into HMP Birmingham where we joined students from HMP Birmingham in the library for six weeks. This is where I experienced education at its best. 

Going into HMP Birmingham I was a schooled robot; conditioned to learn the ‘right’ answers. It was during my few weeks at HMP Birmingham that I truly understood and experienced what education is and should be for everyone. That it is unstructured, free, raw and in a space that allows emotions and feelings to be both seen and heard. But also allowing both HMP Birmingham and Newman students to feel uncomfortable and challenged as I believe this is part of learning. All of this was possible because of the relationships that were allowed to be formed. The student - lecturer relationship that is usually present in a University setting was no longer there. It was now a student- student relationship. We were all students and we all benefited from learning from each other. 

It was during my few weeks at HMP Birmingham that I truly understood and experienced what education is and should be for everyone. That it is unstructured, free, raw and in a space that allows emotions and feelings to be both seen and heard.

This idea of learning from each other is one that has also been referred to as 'learning exchange' by Dr Baz Dreisinger. These two words are extremely powerful in summarising this idea. This project is not about taking 'clever' Newman students into HMP Birmingham to teach the men. It is about people learning from each other, a two way relationship because as humans we never stop learning and we never know everything

Baz is the founder of the Prison-to-College Pipeline programme at John Jay College in New York, as well as a professor, journalist, author and inspiration to me. Baz's programme is also part of the inspiration behind Dr Karen Graham's work here in England.

The recent events that Karen organised took place on the 7th-8th November 2017. One was at Newman University and the second was at HMP Birmingham. Both were 'beautifully empowering' events due to the fact that we had a variety of students altogether; Newman University, HMP Birmingham and John Jay College students. 

The keynote speakers we had at the events are two of the most impressive humans I have ever met and are part of Baz's Prison-to-University programme. Melvin and Devon have both previously been incarcerated and have achieved what I know I will see the men from HMP Birmingham achieve. And that is, to put it mildly, GREATNESS. 

Both Melvin and Devon told of their journeys and their stories touched everyone who heard them. Not only that but they also inspired the men at HMP Birmingham to truly believe in themselves and their own ability to achieve whatever they want to achieve. I heard some of the men saying things like 'that's amazing' and 'I'm definitely going to do it' in reference to the programme. The men were genuinely shocked that these men from America had been allowed into this country for one and also how much they had been supported in achieving what they had as students and academics. 

Melvin was asked whilst delivering his speech at Newman if he had problems with his identity being a student in a University and a person who has committed a crime. His response to this was, 'you have to forgive yourself for your crime because if you do not then you'll never achieve what you are capable of'. He also went on to say that he knows the men in HMP Birmingham appreciated every minute the Newman students were there because he knew the Newman students could of been anywhere in the world but they were with the men in HMP Birmingham on this programme.

Many people call this a second chance for the incarcerated menbut really it is their first chance at succeeding in education because the first time they were failed. 

Devon shared a very personal account of what happened to him upon his release from Prison. His journey and life experiences shocked everyone in the room. When he spoke he captivated the room and ensured the men at HMP Birmingham could hear, listen and understand what he had accomplished as a human being. He succeeded in sharing this message that we are capable of achieving greatness, we are all students, we are a family and we will all support each other.

Melvin was asked whilst delivering his speech at Newman if he had problems with his identity being a student in a University and a person who has committed a crime. His response to this was, you have to forgive yourself for your crime because if you do not then you'll never achieve what you are capable of.

Devon, despite a very tough period in his life became THE FIRST Graduate from the Prison-to-University programme. This man is what me, Karen and Dan see in the men at HMP Birmingham; a legend. 

Something that Baz said really resonated with me and nicely pulls together why we all do what we do in this programme; many people call this a second chance for the incarcerated men but really it is their first chance at succeeding in education because the first time they were failed. This was a common theme that was illuminated across these two events and lectures in the HMP Birmingham library; all students had previously been failed by their previous education as children. 

This whole experience for me has been crazy and beautiful. Would I call it a success? Yes- definitely. Karen taught me that sometimes we are more afraid of success than failure, maybe because we are used to failing, or being told we are failing and so we have had more experience in dealing with failure that when it comes to success we don't know how to react. So Karen for what's it worth, you and this programme are more than a success in my eyes.

Paying homage to Karen and Dan and my incarcerated brothers.

This is part of the PUPiL blog series. If you would like to respond to the points and issues raised in this blog, or to contribute to the blog yourself, please contact Morwenna.