An Unconquerable Soul
Yusef Pierce’s Journey to a Pitzer College Degree from Inside Prison
On May 15, Yusef Pierce ’21 earned his Pitzer College degree in Organizational Studies with honors, and he earned it from inside the California Rehabilitation Center, a medium-security prison in Norco, CA. On that day in May, he became the first student to obtain an undergraduate degree through the College’s new Inside-Out Pathway-to-BA program, and the first student anywhere to graduate with a college degree based on curriculum in which “inside” incarcerated students and “outside” college students learn together in the same classrooms.
“I want to dedicate this degree to my mom and all the other moms out there,” Pierce said during Pitzer’s virtual Commencement Celebration—he was one of Pitzer’s graduating seniors selected to speak during the ceremony. (You can watch his speech on Pitzer’s YouTube channel.)
Pierce took his first Pitzer Inside-Out course in 2019, but his journey in higher education began in 2010 with a letter his mother, Drochelle Pierce, sent at the beginning of his 19-year prison sentence. During Commencement, dressed in a cap and gown, he read his mom’s life-changing letter.
“‘Where do we go from here?’” his mother wrote more than a decade ago. “‘As I told you before, education is your key to success. You must believe me, there is no shortcut, and no easy fix. You, now more than ever, must diligently seek and obtain higher education.’”
And he did. He first began taking classes through Norco College, a local community college with a prison education program, then through Pitzer’s Inside-Out classes.
In a story on NPR’s Morning Edition, “Student Makes the Most of Time Behind Bars, Finishes College With Honors,” Yusef spoke about the impact of knowing that “somebody was reading my stuff and that somebody felt like the things that I was thinking about were worth something.” (Listen to the NPR story.)
“It just really turned me into an overachiever,” he said. “And I just took class after class after class.”
His drive and dedication turned him into an exceptional student, says Pitzer Professor Nigel Boyle, who leads the Inside-Out Pathway-to-BA program with Tyee Griffith, the founding manager of the Justice Education Initiative at the Claremont Colleges.
“Every professor wants a Yusef in your class,” Boyle told NPR. “You want that sort of student who’s bright, does the work but is also helping to bring along the others.”
Pierce is part of an initial cohort of eight students who received acceptance letters during the launch of the Inside-Out Pathway-to-BA program in December 2020. (Watch the program’s launch ceremony on Pitzer’s YouTube channel.) At the launch ceremony, Pierce said being a Pitzer student “means opportunities, both new opportunities that I had never imagined for myself, as well as recovered opportunities that I thought were long lost.”
Pierce also spoke about his older brother, who was shot and killed when Pierce was a teen. He described how losing his brother influences his desire to earn his college degree.
“Most importantly, being a Pitzer student means having the opportunity to make a significant achievement in honor of my late brother and also doing something that will make my mother extremely proud.”
On his way to his degree, Pierce has explored his artistic as well as academic abilities. In March 2021, the Pitzer College Art Galleries hosted a virtual exhibit of his work, curated by Professor Barbara Junisbai, one of his Inside-Out professors.
In his artist’s statement, Pierce wrote that it is important to note that he discovered his artistic talent while in prison.
“It is true that oppression often requires that individuals make themselves extraordinary in order to simply survive,” he writes. “I began creating art as a way to communicate with my children who, at the time, were too young to read and write. Now, visual art has become the primary way that I communicate who I am to the rest of the world. My paintings are entire conversations on canvas.”
He has also created a children’s book in an Inside-Out psychology course with Pitzer Professor Marcus Rodriguez, who gave students in his Dialectical Behavior Therapy course the option of writing a paper or writing a children’s book to reflect on the ideas they learned in class. Pierce wrote 5 Simple Steps, about a grandmother who teaches her grandchildren how to negotiate relationships.
Pierce’s undergraduate degree isn’t the end of his road in higher education. Pierce told Boyle that he is scheduled to be released in spring 2022 and plans to study for the GRE this summer in preparation for applying to PhD programs. Boyle intends to nominate him for post-BA fellowships, such as the Fulbright.
During Pitzer’s virtual Commencement, Pierce recited a poem his mother had included in that 2010 letter she sent that changed everything. The poem is Invictus, by the Victorian era British poet William Ernest Henley, and Pierce recited it from memory:
Out of the night that covers me Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed. Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years Finds, and shall find, me unafraid. It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.
On May 15, his mother saw her son, standing at a podium in prison, in cap and gown, now a college graduate, sharing with the Pitzer College Class of 2021 the words that helped transform his life and future.
“I sent that to my son because I wanted him to think in terms of, ‘OK, here you are. Now, what happens to you from this point going forward really depends on you,’” she told NPR. “And look what he did. He turned a bad situation into something very, very positive. And, I mean, ’cause here he is graduating with his degree.”
Pierce told NPR that after he earns his PhD, he plans to teach incarcerated students, people in prison who are wondering where to go from where they are. As a professor, he would give his students the same answer his mother gave him 11 years ago: Education is the key to your success.
About Pitzer College’s Inside-Out Pathway-to-BA Program
Pitzer’s Inside-Out Pathway-to-BA is a bachelor of arts degree program for currently incarcerated individuals that is based on Inside-Out curriculum. Following the Inside-Out model developed by Professor Lori Pompa at Temple University, “inside” incarcerated students at the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) in Norco, CA, and “outside” students from The Claremont Colleges learn together, taking the same courses with the same Claremont Colleges professors in the same classrooms (currently, virtually; previously, in-person at the CRC). Pitzer initiated Inside-Out classes at the CRC in 2014. It launched the Inside-Out Pathway-to-BA in December 2020, becoming the first college in the country to transform Inside-Out curriculum into a BA degree program for incarcerated learners. Pitzer’s Inside-Out Pathway-to-BA is part of the Justice Education Initiative of the Claremont Colleges and was developed in partnership with the CRC and Norco College.
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