Vicki Hunter has been there.
The 17-year Minnesota State University professor of sociology has been incarcerated, and knows the hopelessness she felt in that place. That’s what led her to start an associates of arts program called the Scholars Serving Time program at three Minnesota correctional facilities.
While incarcerated in her 20s, Hunter worked for the prison’s education director, who suggested Hunter go to college after serving her sentence.
“I was going to be getting out in a couple of months,” she recalled of the long-ago experience. “My response was, I don’t even know anybody who has even gone to college. She said I think you’d do well.”
Her mentor supplied her with a FAFSA application and an application to Kent State in Ohio. She was accepted.
“I started college two weeks after I got out of prison,” she said. “On the same day that my youngest son started kindergarten.”
She went on to get her master’s and doctorate, and now sees college as a turning point for people.
“I had no idea,” she said. “I just had no idea how much college was going to change my life when I started. But now here I am, a professor for 17 years at a big university.”
Hunter shares her past with inmates at three Minnesota correctional facilities as a means of breaking down barriers. Her students also call her Vicki, another barrier-busting move.
“I wish everybody knew about her,” said Rachael Hanel, an associate professor at MSU who teaches in the English department and is one of the faculty members with the Scholars Serving Time program.
“I can’t say enough good things about her and about the college for supporting this program. It’s so, so critical.”
Gary Carlson, a former inmate at Faribault Correctional Facility, was intrigued by the college programming offered there, and wrote an essay to get into the AA degree Hunter oversees.
Now a Coon Rapids resident who works in sales, Carlson didn’t complete his degree with the program but hopes to go on to do so in the future. He said the program allows for “opportunities for growth” for those incarcerated, which he appreciated.
“It opens up opportunities outside of what we’d normally experience coming out of prison,” Carlson said. “A lot of people don’t think about education as a priority or something that’s important. They’re stuck in a lifestyle that’s not great for growth.”
Carlson described Hunter’s teaching approach as “very refreshing.” She was motivational, open, and personable, he said. “In prison, we’re ostracized,” he said. “A lot of us feel like we don’t fit into society any more. She treated us as people — she didn’t have any fear or hesitation.”
A North Mankato resident, Hunter spends as many as 55 to 60 hours a week facilitating the Scholars Serving Time program as its director. It launched in January 2021 and serves men and women who are incarcerated in the federal prison in Waseca and in state facilities in Shakopee and Faribault.
Students take three to four classes per semester in working toward their AA degree. In Waseca, students can also tag on a nonprofit leadership certificate to their two-year undertaking.
“One of the most unique things about teaching people who are incarcerated, or having college programs for them, is the age range is so wide,” Hunter said. “Sometimes it’s students who are 18 or 19 and then up to people in their 60s. That makes it unique and really kind of cool.”
As people age, they get more serious about their education. Thus Hunter finds reward, and says her fellow Scholars Serving Time faculty do as well, in the fact that her students are so driven.
Faculty, Hunter said, aren’t volunteering but are teaching the correctional facility AA courses as they would a regular college class on campus. The only difference is, they’re teaching in prison.
“They hear from other professors about how engaging, and insightful and hardworking the students are who are in the college program,” Hunter said. “And that’s really exciting for professors. There’s nothing they love more than being able to connect with other people who love what they study. The incarcerated students are just so fun to teach.”
“They do all the readings, do reading assignments sometimes multiple times, they come to class ready to have in-depth, dynamic discussions. They’re fun and interesting and engaging.”
“I absolutely agree,” Hanel said. “I think a big part of it is not only are they driven because they really want to do something better for themselves, but also there’s just something about adult learners. It’s much different than a typical on-campus class. I’ve taught adults before and it’s the same type of thing; adults have chosen to do this. They’re so, so committed.”
The program has served about 100 people so far, and some of its scholars have gone on to get out of prison and pursue higher education beyond their AA degree.
Hunter does everything for the AA program from getting students recruited and registered, recruiting faculty, working with prison administrators to set up the program and working with the college business office.
She manages all of the funding, and oversees admissions applications. All told, it’s a job fit for more than one person, Hunter said, but she’s still building the program and deciphering how to disperse some of the tasks and responsibilities among others.
Another part of the program is weekly student sessions for students who need extra support.
“Certainly I get a lot of cooperation from many different departments and offices on campus,” she said, “who help with course registration and things like that.”
She has about 15 faculty members who participate in the program, and has had as many as 50 who have participated since the program’s inception in 2021.
Their MSU Scholars Serving Time program is modeled after the Bard Prison Initiative, which is known for its intense courses, which are discourse driven and rigorous.
“It’s student driven,” Hunter said. “People who teach in prisons realize those students do tend to be a bit more mature, and they have colorful life experiences to bring to the table. This program is very liberal arts rich; it’s a very intensive liberal arts program.
“We really want students to come away with a sense of themselves, broadening their horizons and building identities to make them better citizens. I don’t mean just law abiding. I feel like they’re people who can actively participate in their community at a family or civic level.”
As for the students who have gone on to higher learning, Hunter said that’s the dream fulfilled.
“That’s amazing,” she said. “That is the thing I want the most for them. A lot of people think, an AA degree, what does that do for you? But it does increase their employment potential.”
They’ve also completed two years of their course work and can walk into any college setting with all of their general education requirements met, Hunter said.
“When I talk to incarcerated students and they understand my background, I think it maybe conveys to them that being successful in college is within their reach,” she said. “That’s something I never understood and many of them don’t see college as within their reach.
“I also think they don’t have to settle for unskilled jobs. They might assume their life is kind of limited. But I think they can start to dream bigger, when they see someone who has been in their situation and who has been successful going to college and becoming a professor.”