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A New Path: Lee College alum found his start in an unusual place

DAYTON – Growing up, James Adams* never placed much emphasis on his education. A self-proclaimed ‘crazy kid,’ he dropped out of high school at 16 and set out on his own.
“I was smart, but I never thought much of school,” he mused. “I wanted to get out there and make money, so I began working in construction. But the money didn’t come fast enough.”
Faced with few prospects, James (not his real name) turned to a life of crime. By 19 he had been convicted of 38 felony counts and was serving time at the LV Hightower Unit in Dayton.
It was in prison that he finally found his path.
“I was serving time with several inmates who were participating in Lee College’s Inmate Education Program,” he said. “Everyone I spoke to had very positive things to say about it, so I applied, thinking that going to school would help me pass the time and get a job when I got out of prison. In the end, it changed my life.”

Established through a partnership with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) in 1966, the program offers student offenders course work leading to three associate degrees and 11 certificate programs.
In order to participate in the program, inmates must meet certain criteria established by TDCJ, including education and behavioral requirements. Classes are held at seven TDCJ units in Huntsville. On average, vocational certificate programs are completed within six months, and associate degree programs are completed within four years.
“Lee College was the second educational institution to offer college credit classes to TDCJ offenders,” said Donna Zuniga, dean of the Lee College Huntsville Center. “The academic program began in the fall of 1966; at that time we offered 5 classes and served 176 students. Vocational classes were offered in the spring 1967. By 1968, 688 students were enrolled in 25 academic and vocational classes. Today, approximately 37 percent of associate degrees and 25 percent of certificates awarded in the TDCJ system are through Lee College.”
Although the program is state funded, student offenders are required to repay all incurred expenses.
“Student offenders are required to pay for tuition and fees for college credit and non-credit courses, as well as any fees associated with testing requirements,” Zuniga continued. “These fees can be paid at registration or re-paid upon release.”
Upon successfully completing a vocational program, students are awarded certificates suitable for presentation to prospective employers. Graduates of associate’s degree programs are able to participate in commencement exercises held within the unit.
“Awarding a student offender a degree or certificate is always a very moving experience,” Zuniga added. “Students hold their heads up higher, knowing they have made an investment in their future.”
It’s an investment that pays dividends to the community as well. According to recent research, offenders completing two years of college reflect a 10-percent recidivism rate. In comparison, those who do not receive an education reflect a 60-percent recidivism rate.
“Using average TDCJ housing costs, this reduction in re-incarceration results in a savings of $2.1 million per year,” Zuniga said. “And that’s just the measurable financial savings; you cannot measure the impact on students’ lives, but you can see it.”
James is a living testimony to her statement.
In 1998, he graduated from the program with a 4.0 grade point average, an associate of applied sciences degree in Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration and an associate’s degree in Business Administration.
After working in the industry for eight years, he established his own air conditioning, heating and plumbing services company. Today, he averages $1.7 million in sales, employs over a dozen staff members and is expanding his services throughout the greater Houston area. He has also taught classes in the Theory of Air Conditioning, and instructed students on properly diagnosing HVAC equipment.
While he credits his professional success to the skills he learned in the vocational program, he believes his personal success is due largely to academics.
“I feel as though I am a poster child for this program,” he stated. “As I have always said, I was a crazy kid; I was selfish, I didn’t care about anything. Academics exposed me to a world I would have never known otherwise. It showed me that there was more to life than drugs and alcohol. I learned to be more considerate. I learned to appreciate other people and their perspectives. And that has helped me in business and in life.”
“I don’t want to think negatively, but I do wonder about what could have happened to me had I not been in the program,” James continued. “If it weren’t for Lee College, I don’t know where I would be today.”