News

A new chance for incarcerated PSU student who earns bachelor's degree
Author: Cristina Rojas, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Posted: July 3, 2019

Ezequiel is a different person from the troubled teenager who was incarcerated almost eight years ago. He went from being repeatedly expelled from school and getting involved in gangs to a college graduate who now has dreams of helping at-risk youth steer clear of the path that he went down.

 "It's important to remember for all of us that are doing time that we all have potential," the newly minted Portland State graduate told his peers at a special graduation ceremony June 26 at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility. "In places like this, it may be difficult to see that at times, but with belief and support, you could be that change that the next generation needs."
 

Ezequiel, 23, was one of three youth at MacLaren to receive a college degree — and the only bachelor's degree recipient. He graduated from PSU with a degree in social science. 

Wearing a black cap and gown, he walked across the stage, accepting his diploma from Matt Carlson, interim dean for PSU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, just as hundreds of his Class of 2019 peers had done a week before at the Moda Center. His father, sister and nieces cheered from the audience.

Ezequiel, whose full name is not being published at Oregon Youth Authority's request, now has his sights set on enrolling in PSU's online master of social work.

He is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence after being convicted of first-degree manslaughter.

"I've turned my life around in so many different ways that I felt like a college degree will help me to get my foot in the door and do the things that I want to do when I go back into the community and actually make real change," he said.

He wants to become a peer mentor for at-risk youth and eventually start his own nonprofit.

Growing up, he felt education wasn't for him. He says that getting his degree was as much for him as it was to inspire other Mexicans and minorities who do not necessarily see people like themselves finding success. 

"You can't be what you can't see," he said. "I realized the importance of having people to look up to who look like you. Growing up first-generation Chicano, I didn't know many people who graduated from high school, let alone go to college. I idolized older guys and got involved in street life." 

 Once incarcerated, Ezequiel knew he needed to better himself. He's taken full advantage of Oregon Youth Authority's education programs, earning his high school diploma, then his associate's degree at Chemeketa Community College before transferring to PSU as part of its Transfers Finish Free program.
 

"Getting a degree was the last thing I thought I would be doing, but I'm thankful for this opportunity," he said.

Ezequiel credits his transformation to his education, saying it helped him find the value in himself and realize that he has a responsibility to the world.

"Most people will get a college education to get a good job," he said. "I did it to become aware of social structures and how they impact people and how I can hopefully influence the structures into something positive that benefits all people."

Deb Arthur, an associate professor of University Studies and one of Ezequiel's professors, traveled to MacLaren to see him graduate. She said she has seen him grow from a curious but nervous young man to a brilliant mind and critical thinker.

"He found the beauty in his education," she said. "Education helped him find this passion where he started to identify what it was that made him who he is and what he wants to learn more about. He's gotten in touch with his Aztec roots and he has so much to contribute in a positive way to the world that he never knew about before."

Photos: At top, Ezequiel speaks to his peers at a special graduation ceremony at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility June 26. At bottom, Ezequiel receives his diploma from Matt Carlson, interim dean of PSU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.