Convict to University professor: the person who helped start the “Scholars Serving Time” program 

The Minnesota State Mankato Scholars Serving Time Program offers Associate of Arts (AA)  degrees to incarcerated individuals in Minnesota correctional centers. 

Program Director Vicki Hunter, a sociologist and professor at Minnesota State University , began the program with a colleague.  

“I became interested in doing this because I was actually incarcerated myself,” said Hunter. “n my 20s, I did a couple of years in prison. I did not do college while I was in prison, but the education director at the prison, within months before I was getting out, talked me into applying for college. When I got out, I started college two weeks after my release. I went full-time for 11 years, till I got my PhD.” 

Hunter explained that it had never occurred to her that she could attend college, considering the lack of advanced education in her family. She did, however, graduate as the class valedictorian for her undergraduate degree. She also succeeded in earning a 4.0 GPA while completing her PhD and Master’s degrees. 

What had started as an initiative back when Tim Walz was Congress representative for Minnesota, became a full-fledged program 10 years later.  

“Back in 2015, Glen Walz (wife of current governor, Tim Waltz) was actually very supportive of efforts that I and one of my colleagues at the time had, and worked pretty closely with us trying to get a program started,” said Hunter.  

The program officially started in the middle of the pandemic, The first sessions took place in auditorium-style classrooms.  

The Scholars Serving Time program is essentially a “college in prison” program. 

“The program is an AA degree. To an average student, it means completing all your general education requirements and 16 more credits of 100 or 200 level classes. It offers courses from a wide array of different departments. Everything from biology, art, psychology, and sociology, so that students can meet all their general education requirements,” said Hunter.

The program is currently operating at the Minnesota Correctional Facilities—women-only state prisons—in Faribault, Waseca, and Shakopee. MSU offers seven Gen Ed courses per semester. After a student fulfills their general education requirements, they can take other courses that happen to be Gen Ed, for their electives, to satisfy the required 16 additional credits. Forty-two students participate in the program, where each student takes four classes Only 24 students can fit into the single classroom in the facility that has been designated for MNSU. Classes meet once per week.

The students in the program are convicts, incarcerated for a wide array of offenses.  

 “We have people with all kinds of offenses. We have people with homicide crimes, we have people with drug crimes, people with assault charges, things like that. Most things you can think of, we have them,” said Hunter.  

 According to the program director, student’s offenses are irrelevant the moment they enter their classes.

“The students at the facility are incredibly motivated. They work very hard in their classes. On campus, it’s often difficult to get students to complete the readings before class. These students, generally speaking, will not only complete the reading, but they will also complete the reading and have three or four pages of notes on the reading. It’s sometimes hard to get through a lecture because they’re raising their hands and wanting to make a comment, add an example, or ask a question. They are just incredibly energetic and engaged,” said Hunter.  

With an average age of 30, the student body is made up of women ranging in age from 19 to 60. The program director suggested that their engagement and preparation can be explained in part because they tend to be older, but also, because they have very colorful histories. 

“Most of them have experienced really traumatic things. A lot of them have grown up in foster care and others have grown up in poverty or with parents who struggle with substance abuse and addiction. There is also a racial component to the way we incarcerate people in this country, so there is racial oppression and racial trauma that some people have experienced. Many of the women in the class have been sex trafficked from an early age,” said Hunter. “They can connect in a very personal way with a lot of the things they’re learning in their courses, like racism, gender inequality, and sexual violence.” 

The program is designed to help students improve their critical thinking abilities, writing and oral communication skills, and application of new knowledge in a range of academic areas. This greatly enhances their career opportunities and marketability. One of the most crucial aspects is that it alters their perception of themselves and their abilities.   

 “The program impacted my life tremendously,” said Safara Shortman, a participant of the program. 

Shortman, 36 years old and a parent to three children, served a mandatory 10 year sentence for substance use at 15 years old and is now continuing a degree in philosophy.

“I really struggled with a lot of things. It just showed me that, I’m able to go and put my mind to something and accomplish it. That I am still capable of going back to school, getting an education, finishing it, and having a better future,” said Shortman. “I would recommend it because, before I went, I had no signs of going and getting an education. And when I went there,I was able to focus on myself. I feel like it was a perfect time for women to be able to focus on themselves and have that time to decide what they really wanted to do. It changed my life for the better.”

 Hunter explained that they are very careful about selecting faculty who are enthusiastic and work toward creating engaging experiences. 

“We really try to steer away from people who are just going to do straight-up lecturing, because these students are just so hungry that they will do the work. The faculty we have recruited for this program is unbelievable. They are very dynamic, caring, compassionate, and enthusiastic,” said Hunter. 

Header photo: Courtesy of Vicki Hunter

Write to Ephrata Bezuayene at Ephrata.bezuayene@mnsu.edu

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