The Massachusetts Department of Higher Education recently awarded a Bridges to College grant to Holyoke Community College. The grant will support HCC’s Western Mass CORE program.  

Founded in 2019, Western Mass CORE works in partnership with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office to provide educational services and resources to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals.  

Zydalis Bauer spoke with leaders of Western Mass CORE to learn more about the impact this funding will have on the program and how life-changing these educational pathways are for the participants. 

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: The Massachusetts Department of Higher Education recently awarded a Bridges to College Grant to the Western Mass CORE program at Holyoke Community College.

Founded in 2019, Western Mass Core works in partnership with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office to provide educational services and other resources to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals.

I spoke with leaders of the organization to learn about the impact this funding will have on the program and how life changing these educational pathways are for the participants.

Nicole Hendricks, Co-Coordinator: We feel very strongly that to support the needs of these students, we need four key elements: community, opportunities, resources, and education.

Incarceration is a multidimensional experience and it impacts people in a variety of ways — physically, emotionally, economically, and socially.

And so, Western Mass CORE was created to build a pathway from incarceration to college for those folks that are interested in pursuing a college degree or a certificate.

Zydalis Bauer: And so, you’ve been working in partnership for the past several years now with the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow and the Western Mass Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee.

What impact have these courses and this program had on the individuals?

Mary Orisich, Co-Coordinator: It’s, for many of them, the first time an educator has taken an active interest in them. So, it’s really facilitated their ability to see themselves as students who are worthy of an education.

So, I think there’s that, but then I think the other wonderful thing about our program is that we’re present. We’re there for advising, we’re there for information sessions about the college, so we’re doing much more than just offering a course here and a course there — we’re really about creating programing and a pathway.

And so, for students on the inside, I think that’s helpful. And then upon release, once a student or an individual is in the community, we’re there to support that student in locating the resources that they might need.

And so, we’re building multiple bridges.

Nicole Hendricks: Students — when we complete these grants we write a grant report and we do collect a lot of feedback and reflection from many of our students — and this is just a comment from from one of the students that we’ve worked with.

The students said, “In the end, I really enjoyed having a variety of discussions, to have the opinions and insights was helpful and meaningful. Most of the classes ended in the middle of the debate. It made me leave in deep thought, and not one class was boring or uneventful.”

Every class really brings students into a world that maybe helps to — help, helps them kind of center in on their own learning and sort of away from some of the challenges of being incarcerated — and so, that’s one of the great benefits of this program.

Zydalis Bauer: You’ve mentioned that in the past year you’ve been focusing on post-incarceration support.

What does that entail and why is that so important?

Nicole Hendricks: So, that looks like — really intensive advising and working with students as they try to navigate re-entry.

And so, college can be one aspect of that, but HCC does have a host of services that we connect students with, including housing, the Thrive Center, there’s a student emergency fund…these can be very critical resources to support somebody’s academic goals because if the basic needs are not being met, then it’s, as you know, difficult to focus on — on school.

So, that’s one aspect of it, and then in terms of academic support, it’s really enrolling in courses — it’s connecting a student with a learning coach or the tutoring center. Having 1 to 3 people to — to really reach out to, we find is — is rather important.

Alethea Melanson, SR Staff Assistant: That’s a big part of my job is just kind of connecting with students upon release particularly or upon referral — we do get a lot of referrals from the community, and just kind of see what their goals are, what their aspirations are, and how does HCC fit into that picture? How can we help them achieve their goals academically, career wise?

It’s a really fun — it’s a fun part of my job, and I think it’s really important for some of these people who may just not know where to begin.

It can be really difficult and kind of scary to navigate a big institution like a community college.

Zydalis Bauer: Absolutely, and so being a part of Western Mass Core, how has it changed you all individually? What have you learned about yourselves and the community?

Alethea Melanson: It’s almost like a community college — it’s kind of the equalizer, right? You know, like everyone comes in the same regardless of whether you’ve been previously incarcerated or not, if you have no justice involvement, everyone kind of comes in trying to find their way, and trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, and that’s the thing that I think everyone thinks about.

It’s just been a — It’s been a real eye opener for the kinds of experiences that we all kind of share as a community.

Nicole Hendricks: For me, I had some real personal revelations, actually, as I sort of went deeper into this work, and when I was growing up, my older brother was incarcerated in a state facility, and he went to college through the Boston University Prison Education program.

At the time, he would write letters to me about the courses he was taking and even though Mary and I started this program in 2019, it never occurred to me that maybe some of my interest in this work was tied to that family experience.

And so, I know there are a lot of us in the community who have been impacted by criminal legal system involvement, whether it’s ourselves or our family members, and I just feel that access to higher ed, for people who want it, should be a right and the more that we can make that possible — that’s really, I guess, what has moved me and continues to move me.

Zydalis Bauer: And so as this program continues to grow, what are your hopes for its future?

Nicole Hendricks: Well, we’d love to see greater awareness of the possibilities of attaining a higher education among all of our students, both folks on the inside, and people who are in the community and may have a criminal record, and didn’t think about — haven’t thought about college.

We’d like to really deepen connections among formerly incarcerated adult learners who are on our campus to create a system of peer support and mentoring.

We’d love to see increased college readiness among — especially our community members in Holyoke.

Holyoke faces a disproportionate burden when it comes to criminal legal system involvement. And so, we feel as a college rooted in Holyoke, we have an obligation to serve the needs of this community.

And then ultimately it is a way to increase community safety and create healthier communities — healthier communities are communities where people can pursue a college education, can find a job with sustainable wages, can support their families…and so, we see this program as part of a larger effort to close some of those gaps.