In his early 20s, Dr. Stanley Andrisse was dubbed a “career criminal” with “no hope for change.” With three felony convictions and facing up to 10 years in prison for drug trafficking, Andrisse says he was painted as a “dangerous threat to society” who needed to be “thrown away” before his brain had fully even developed. But today Andrisse is an endocrinologist and professor at both Howard University and John Hopkins University, where he trains future doctors. He’s also the director of From Prison Cells to Ph.D. – a nonprofit organization helping to restore hope among the millions of incarcerated people who Andrisse feels could also transform their lives through education.
By the time Andrisse left prison, he could see a different path for his future. He applied to several colleges and was rejected by everyone, except St. Louis University where a mentor helped him get past the excruciating and often limiting application process. “I got into the program, finished top of my class, then finished my Ph.D. and MBA in four years,” he says. “I had this hunger and thirst for change.”
At first, his friends who were incarcerated thought he was crazy, but after seeing how education was able change Andrisse's life, they were inspired to change their own stories. Their transformation is what inspired Andrisse to start helping others through his organization.
“There’s a stigma attached to incarceration,” he says, and there’s a need to change the perception. “I’m not this anomaly…. We will hopefully connect with many more people. There is a lot of potential talent and potential locked behind these [prison] walls.”
One area that Andrisse is addressing is how to change the application processes, which — in application and financial aid forms — includes "barriers that admissions people on the ground don’t even know about,” he says. Even now, after completing his doctorate, Andrisse can feel the anxiety of his own application process. “It was checking that box that I have this felony conviction,” he says. “Even to this day when I see that box, it literally brings about this visceral fear in me. I have a number of different degrees behind my name, professor at two well-known institutions — still when applying to things [I remember the feeling of] ‘I’m not good enough. They will never want me. I’m just a criminal.’”
In this edition of the Harvard EdCast, Andrisse shares his story, and discusses the school-to-prison pipeline and how higher education can help transform the lives of the formerly incarcerated.
About the Harvard EdCast
The Harvard EdCast is a weekly podcast featuring brief conversations with education leaders and innovative thinkers from across the country and around the world. Hosted by Jill Anderson, the EdCast is a dynamic space for discourse about problems and transformative solutions in education, shining a light on the compelling people, policies, practices, and ideas shaping the field. Find the EdCast on iTunes, Soundcloud, and Stitcher.