Donnie Veal, 51, doesn’t fit the profile of a typical student at University of California Santa Cruz. In fact, he served more time in prison than many undergraduates have been alive. 

Veal has had to get used to his professors questioning whether he’s a student and his classmates mistaking him for the professor or a college staff member. “Sometimes people don’t know how to approach,” he said. “Students will talk to me as if I have some type of power over them or whatever. And it’s just like, ‘Nah, we’re in the same boat. I’m trying to figure this out, just like you.’”

But that confusion will soon be cleared up as Veal graduates with a degree in sociology from UC Santa Cruz in June and starts a new job at Cabrillo College. He’ll be the program coordinator of Rising Scholars, a support program for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students. His life experience was why he was hired for the job, he said. Veal spent 23 years in prison, and got out in 2019.

Colleges are well placed to hire formerly incarcerated graduates like Veal, Rebecca Villarreal and Basia Skudrzyk argue in a recent op-ed. As some of the largest employers across the country, colleges and universities can provide job opportunities for formerly incarcerated students in addition to educating them. For example, UConn Health, the medical system under University of Connecticut, has committed to filling 5% of its entry level positions over the next three years with formerly incarcerated people. 

“They have a unique capacity not only to educate individuals currently in the criminal justice system but also to tap a new source of talent to enrich their community,” Villarreal, of Jobs for the Future, and Skudzyk, of Prison to Professionals, write. 

Charlotte West sat down with Veal to talk about his educational journey from prison to college, the expertise that formerly incarcerated people bring to higher education, and what’s top of mind as he graduates and  transitions into his new job. (Veal’s responses have been lightly edited for clarity.)

How did your education journey in prison get started?

I started taking some correspondence courses with Coastline [Community College] somewhere around 2010. I initially started just to give myself something to do. But I really didn’t get that college thing ignited inside of me until I took a public speaking course from Hartnell College. I researched the topic of recidivism because I didn’t want to come back to prison once I got out. And in the process of my research, I learned that the higher I go in education, the less chance I have of coming back to prison.

What was it like taking correspondence courses?

The correspondence courses were challenging because there were courses or things that I didn’t know how to decipher. Some of the things were so foreign to me, I didn’t have anybody to fall back on to help explain to me what they wanted in a prompt, or even just what some of the readings were discussing. I would have to call home sometimes, and maybe ask people to look stuff up and I would have to wait for them to print things out and send it into the prison.

Can you talk about your transition to community college?

When I first started doing correspondence courses, I was in Salinas Valley State Prison. Then Hartnell started sending professors in. Once they started doing that, I was trying to burn the candle at both ends, taking correspondence courses with Coastline and taking in-person courses with Hartnell, just trying to expedite the process, getting as many units as I could to get myself closer to that associate’s. And while I was in the middle of school, my appeal was granted. I was released from prison. My brother offered me a proposition. He said, ‘Look, I’ll give you a place to live. I provide you with food. The only thing I want you to do is go to school.’

I was thinking I needed to get some form of degree ASAP to help me in the world. I left Salinas Valley State Prison on October 11, 2019. I enrolled in Cabrillo in January 2020. And then we were on COVID lockdown so everything went online.

What was it like being on a college campus? 

As I was in Cabrillo and going to school, adjusting to going from a level-four prison institution to a college campus, everything that had been hardwired in me in prison — don’t go in crowds, or if you’re in a crowd, watch people’s hands — didn’t apply.  I had to consciously remind myself, ‘You’re okay. You don’t have to put your back to the wall.’ I still have to catch myself sometimes. 

In prison, if you violated my personal space, you would get a reaction and your reaction would determine how far we went from there. But in a college setting, I have to remember that people aren’t violating personal space because they’re trying to test you, they are simply oblivious. So I can’t be giving people death stares every time they bump into me. 

University of California Santa Cruz (Maddison Hwang/Open Campus)

Can you talk about the transition from Cabrillo to UC Santa Cruz?

When I came to UC Santa Cruz, I felt a little lost, I’m not gonna lie. I was blown away by just the sheer size of this place. There are no flat surfaces at UC Santa Cruz. Everything is hilly. You cannot see across the campus to any building, unless you’re right next to it. It was very overwhelming, it would have been very easy for me to become isolated here. As an older reentry student, once we set our sights on something, we still tend to keep moving through adversity. But there were some mental challenges and trying to figure out if I belonged at the UC system. Cabrillo College was more hands-on, you can always talk to somebody anytime you need to — whereas here, you make a career center appointment and it’s like two months away. 

What work are you doing with Underground Scholars at UC Santa Cruz and how are you supporting other system-impacted students?

The Underground Scholars program really promotes hiring and dealing with people from within. That’s why their student and staff positions are filled by people that have been justice-impacted. So when the director Joshua Solis found me and listened to my story, he was like, ‘Yo, bro, we have a spot for you.’

I started working with policy analysis and then they offered me another position as the outreach coordinator. With my story, it’s a lot easier for me to pull people into our college system than it would be for anybody else. Because I know how to walk the walk. I have examples of these trials by fire and coming out the other end.

Courtesy of Cabrillo College. Aptos, California.

How did you end up with a job offer from Cabrillo College, doing work that builds on what you’re doing now?

Joshua forwarded me an email with the position for being a program coordinator for the Rising Scholars program, which also caters to system impacted students. I looked at the position initially, and just thought it’ll go to someone with more education or a fancy résumé. I thought that I don’t even stand a chance. 

I wanted to go for the position, I just didn’t have the confidence. I had a conversation with my brother. And he told me to send him the job description. And he went over it and he says, ‘I don’t know why you wouldn’t be the perfect fit for this position. So go for it.’ 

I applied for the job at Cabrillo College and it was a panel. It wasn’t just a supervisor, one on one. There were five people shooting questions. I thought I blew the interview. And the next thing you know, at an event, the director pulled me to the side and said, ‘We were supposed to be starting the second round of interviews, but we’ve decided to cancel all the interviews and we want to move forward with you.’

I’ve gone from prison to community college, to university, and from university straight into my career. And I really believe that those are just some of the indicators that I am, in fact, on the right path.

I recently read an article about the fact that colleges should not only be educating incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students, they should also be hiring them. I’d love to hear your take on that as someone now working in higher education. 

This is a student population that is largely ignored — not just in education, but in life. Since colleges are supposed to be forward thinkers, I think it’s important that colleges lead by example and hire those same people. They should lead in as an example of giving people that are reentering society chances of having a normal life upon post release. I think that colleges have a huge responsibility.

Do you think there’s a danger of system-impacted folks becoming sort of pigeonholed into just working with reentry programs?

I don’t know if anybody else would have wanted to take a chance on me. I enjoy the work and I really feel good about staying within that realm, but there may be some people who think that they would like to explore some different parts of life and I think that they should definitely have that opportunity. I have so many more levels of myself than just prison.

Your start date at Cabrillo got pushed back because of a delay in your background check. What’s going on with that?

We’re still waiting on the Department of Justice. I talked to the director a couple of days ago and he was trying to reassure me  that everything’s still okay. They’re just taking their time with that. In a way it kind of makes me nervous. But  there’s nothing new that they don’t already know about.

I’m hopeful that it’s the DOJ taking their time and not something else going on. But I can’t help but worry that we’re going to have to jump through some extra hoops or ‘I knew it was too good to be true.’ In prison, we always prepare ourselves for the worst. A lot of the times I do have that feeling just so that if it does happen, then it’s not a blow. As a justice-impacted person, I’ve lived like that for a very long time. I know it’s kind of wrong for us to live like that on a day-to-day basis, but sometimes that’s just the best way for me to prepare myself for any bad news that may come about.

As you look towards graduation next month, what does your degree mean to you?

Society likes to set up these measuring sticks. And that piece of paper to me is one less thing that society can look at me and say, ‘We would put you in this position if you had this piece of paper to go along with it.’ 

That piece of paper signifies more opportunities, more independence, being able to be self-sufficient, and even helpful to family members. When you’re incarcerated, you’re basically a dependent to all those people that love you and support you. And as a man, sometimes those things can make you feel less than. I hated having to call people and be like, ‘Can you send me money?’ The independence and being able to give back, those are some of the important things that that piece of paper means to me.

Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.