If you sat down with anyone who is employed at The University of Baltimore and ask why they choose to work at the institution, at some point in that conversation, they’ll likely share that, “creating opportunities for our students” is a top reason why they enjoy their jobs. That notion of “opportunity” is not fleeting—it’s in our DNA and exemplified in the original documents establishing the University. In fact, it’s fundamental to understanding the institutional mission.
The uniqueness of UBalt’s student body has always required hiring professors who could offer both exceptional scholarly pursuits, along with an extraordinary talent for teaching. Coupled together, these areas are important to accommodate our students, who come from vastly different socio-economic backgrounds and who are profoundly diverse in age, race, and life and work experiences.
For one of UBalt’s most notable programs, the “Second Chance College Program,” creating opportunities has a different goal. Our faculty travel to the Jessup Correctional Institution (JCI), a maximum-security prison operated by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, to teach those who are incarcerated.
Every semester, going back five years, University faculty have stepped up to teach a handful of qualified students at the facility. Over the program’s existence, Merrick School of Business faculty, including Professors Dan Gerlowski, Frank van Vliet, and Kate Demarest, have joined their UBalt colleagues in representing the Merrick School in the program. And it’s not just the students who have been supported by this effort – the interaction has had an everlasting impact on the teachers.
Dr. Gerlowski, a professor of economics, van Vliet, a senior lecturer in marketing and entrepreneurship, and Demarest, a lecturer in accounting (and recently appointed associate dean), are among the School’s many dedicated faculty who aim for the best educational outcomes and opportunities for their students. Our professors are on the frontline of their students’ journeys. Their pursuits in advancing knowledge, is a key to opening the doors of opportunity for our students. In addition, their compassion and caring go a long way to influence the trajectories of our graduates.
According to Gerlowski, who teaches the course “The Economic Way of Thinking” at JCI, he fully embraced the chance to experience a new and interesting student population.
“There are new experiences in teaching that are out there, and I want to experience more of them,” he said.
Even for this seasoned educator, the first day of class at JCI found him anxious and a bit worried.
“The night before my first class, I could not sleep. I was nervous,” he said. “Imagine that. A professor with over 30 years, and I was nervous. I can say that the challenge that was before me was quickly lessened after meeting the students and seeing the teaching resources. It changed my perspective in a hurry.”
Prof. van Vliet has taught a number of times at Jessup, including courses in marketing, business ethics and entrepreneurship. He believes that society does not make it easy for returning citizens to blend into communities. But he sees a solution.
“Education is the great equalizer,” said van Vliet. “We are doing our part to help make returning citizens transition back to the real world a little easier.”
He had to remind himself that many of the JCI students have been cut off from outside influences for quite a while, and their worldview can be different from what he usually finds among his students on campus. The way to cover this gap? Use a real-life example for the Second Chance students to help the grasp concepts.
“One of my favorite explanations that a student provided to his classmates happened in a marketing course,” van Vliet said. “We were talking about distribution chains and some students were struggling with the concept. One class member volunteered to share an example and went on to explain, in graphic detail, how illicit drug trade worked in Baltimore. The light bulb went on for everyone. I must admit, it was a great example, and one that was not in my knowledge portfolio at the time.”
As Prof. Demarest sets foot in a JCI classroom for the first time in the spring semester to teach an accounting course, she’ll arrive with the words and experiences shared by former business school student Chris Wilson. Wilson completed the requirements of the UBalt Ratcliffe Entrepreneurship Fellows program and is an advocate for and a donor to UBalt’s Second Chance program. He is also the author of the book The Master Plan: My Journey from Life in Prison to a Life of Purpose. His words have emotionally impacted Demarest and reframed her mindset about those who are incarcerated.
“I was so moved about how access to college helped Chris see himself as a person of value,” said Demarest. “The University of Baltimore is an institution that makes a difference—and I think that the JCI program fits well within our University’s mission.”
In 2016, the Obama administration launched the Second Chance Pell Program to assist incarcerated people’s quest for a college education; it was developed in conjunction with the 2016 Experimental Sites Initiative of the United States Department of Education’s Pell Grant program. The University of Baltimore was one of 67 colleges and universities selected to participate, and since its inception, UBalt’s program has been led by Andrea Cantora, an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice found in the College of Public Affairs. Her research is focused on issues related to incarceration, prison, and urban crime prevention. Cantora is an advocate for expanding access to post-secondary education in prisons. She regularly works with the School of Business faculty to orient and guide them to the teaching at JCI.
When asked about the effectiveness of Second Chance programs around the country, Prof. Cantora shared some of the key findings documented in a 2013 RAND Corporation study, which pointed to a reduction in re-offending and better job prospects for students who participated.
In addition to a college education to qualified incarcerated men at JCI, The University of Baltimore’s Second Chance College Program has been providing reentry support services, tuition assistance, and mentoring from student peers. Once the participants are eligible to be released from JCI, they pivot their education to the UBalt campus. From that point, it’s on to finishing their degree and then leveraging the knowledge they’ve gained, for their personal and professional success as contributing members of society.
UBalt’s program started with just 30 students. As of spring 2021, 52 students are studying toward a Bachelor of Arts in Human Services Administration degree and a minor in business management. While taking courses at JCI students receive academic support from UBalt faculty and staff, community volunteers, and their incarcerated peers. Through higher education and reentry support, these students really do get the “second chance” they need to have a positive impact on their own lives, their families, and the Baltimore community.
As the first group of Second Chance students reaches the conclusion of their UBalt education, while many others are just getting started, what is the ultimate lesson about this innovative approach to teaching and learning? Prof. Demarest puts it like this:
“I feel that we give up on people – and then we are surprised when there is recidivism,” she said. “To me, programs like Second Chance are a moral imperative. You really make a difference when you teach a student who might never have seen themselves as a professional. And at The University of Baltimore, we are an institution that makes a difference.”