The Gates Close
Leaving the young offenders center behind at aged 19, I wasn’t aware of how my record would affect me when applying for a job. When I left school I had no formal education, but while behind the walls I accessed a range of vocational courses that gave the motivation to start over. These courses were in fitness and sports coaching. Not at a high level, but enough to prepare educational foundations.
After rummaging through newspapers, going to the local jobcentre, and researching online I saw a course of real interest at the adult education center. It was a sports therapy diploma. The jump from basic to further education standard would be significant. These thoughts left me wandering aimlessly as I replayed the fear of not being accepted. However, I was not prepared to sign on social security (welfare). So, goodbye, Mr. fear.
The Sports Therapy Diploma
During my time in the young offender’s center, I was motivated to work as the gym orderly. It combined everything I loved; playing football and lifting weights (rinse and repeat). It’s the same in any prison. Why? Filling time, from the endless sounds of a regime requires a strong mentality. The gym enables access to exercise which can help balance the mind. Not only optimal for physiological/psychological benefits. The pro-social aspect of engaging in sports, fitness, and activity has been the subject of numerous positive academic studies.
The fitness industry is filled with self-employed personal trainers, why couldn’t I be one? Gaining employment (protective factor) after leaving prison is a core tenet in reducing offending behavior. What does that mean? Accessing work opportunities, creates independence, helping contribute, to earning a wage. There would be no need to engage in activities that could see you return to prison. Sign here, please!
Sports therapy would provide me with a solid grounding in the physiology of exercise, which I consumed. I was learning every day, in a subject of real interest. The adult education center was a great place to meet various students at different stages of their journey. I graduated in the summer of 1999. However, this wasn’t going to be enough to get me into college (university). Did I say this was going to be easy?
The Foundation Degree
I left school in the summer of 1994 (aged 16 years) with no formal qualifications. Impossible to do right? Let me pause for a moment to slap myself. To get into college (university) you must have essential skills, English and maths (super news). There was a foundation degree in the local adult education center which provided a pathway into college (university). Real problem. The curriculum was science, maths, and ICT-based. No problem. I grew up in West Belfast. We spoke a different language! I was determined to attend college (university) so needed to complete this course.
To that point, they were the most difficult two years of my life (including prison). Why? Given I had no real understanding of maths, and nearly every subject in the course contained maths, I was struggling. I knew I needed extra tutoring (Bonus). If you like mental torture! After what seemed an eternity, a burnt-out maths tutor, and working out equations on the ceiling at night. Where’s Tom Hanks when you need him? I completed the foundation degree with a distinction. Here we go, it’s time for the big leagues.
The Box of Fear
The college (university) application was a lot more robust to complete and as I worked my way through each page with anticipation and excitement I almost missed the question ex-offenders all fear:
Do you have any criminal convictions spent or unspent? Please tick the box.
Now, here I am aged 23 years with a feeling of real dread deep in my stomach, asking myself the real question;
What do I do with this box?
The feelings overcame me, I needed water. Fast. Where do I go from here? I reflected on all the pain, cold sweats, late nights, and struggles I had encountered to reach this moment. It was clear I needed assistance. Time to book an appointment with citizen’s advice. Making this decision on my own was impossible.
In my head, I wanted to tick the box that said unspent as this was transparent. However, I knew by doing this it might also mean I wasn’t accepted, which was so hard to digest. The guidance from citizen’s advice? Leave the box blank and let the college (university) decide on the outcome. I started wrestling with this advice. I felt uneasy lying on the form. But finally relented knowing the outcome was yet to come.
The Letter of Dread
The BSc (Hons) Degree in Sports, Exercise, and Leisure started in September 2001 and I was having an unbelievable time, meeting different people, learning new skills, going for the odd beer or two! Not 3 weeks into the course, I got a letter to the house requesting I attend a meeting at 2.30 pm on Friday afternoon with the admissions panel. At that moment I felt like I was back in court with the judge passing the custodial sentence. Those days preceding Friday were the longest in history. I reviewed all the events in my head, with every passing moment. Food and rest were not high on the agenda.
Waiting outside the room on Friday I knew this could only go two ways:
- I stay on course,
- My days in college (university) are over.
I opened the door and there was a panel of 4 people (fear wouldn’t cover the feelings). I sat down, feet tapping the floor, clasping my hands together, knowing the question they were going to asked me: Why didn’t you tick the box, Michael?
Is this the end?
I felt a rush of blood all over my body. How many emotions can you feel in 30 seconds? Jesus, this was difficult. How can this one box found on all applications carry so much significance? Get your shit together Michael. Tell them your story. Did you not change your life around since leaving the gates behind? I communicated the past 4 years to them, and the process of judgment I had to go through around this one question. They asked me to wait in the hall.
During this time in the hall, I reflected on what had gone before, and what a rejection would mean for my career opportunities moving forward. If they said no, how would any other college (university) say yes? (This wasn’t dragon den). The weight of the decision was pushing me down the wall. The door opened they asked me to take a seat.
I had braced for the worst. Sweaty foreheads are always a giveaway. This is it, I thought. But wait. The news hit me flush between the eyes. It was an acceptance to continue on the course. (What a result). I rushed out of the front doors and jumped into the car. Emotions overcame me. A new journey was beginning. Time to move Michael. Remove the label.
“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all love of what you are doing” (Pele)
Where did those 4 years go?
It’s graduation day. The parents are over the moon. I’m the first sibling out of generations to achieve a college (university) degree. Now, some might find that tone a bit harsh. However, you need to experience what happens after college (university) to fully appreciate the slight skepticism. Now, back to the celebrations, cameras out, gown on, get that boarder off my head, and boom. Over in a flash!
So, now what? Depending on the college degree attained you wish to enter the sector that matches your academic background. Sounds easy? Did you forget about all your other classmates at your college (university), not to mention other colleges in your region all vying for the same positions? Jesus, I never thought of that! Therein lies the problem as to why thousands of college graduates do one of five things:
1. They migrate looking for work (brain drain).
2. They stay on and study a masters
3. They get a job stacking shelves while they wait for a job to open they like (soul-destroying).
4. They do another degree in a different subject (as that’s really where the jobs are)
5. Go traveling (see the world).
You may be one of the fortunate ones that secure a job in a company that matches your academic pathway. Based on my own experiences out of a class of 84 students there is not 25% of my former classmates employed in the industry they achieved their degree within. Now that’s a lot of wasted skills.
“One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation” ~~Arthur Ashe.
What happened to me?
I was one of those select 20% that got the job straight out of college (just kidding) that wouldn’t be a good story to read. No, back to life’s challenges and tests for me. Upon leaving college I worked in sales and marketing for a year (low level) but a great learning experience. Remember what I said about the degree you select and job opportunities.
After this one year, I was approached by a friend of mine who wanted to start in business for himself and wanted to know if I would join him. Now at this point, I’m thinking start in business, no records check, and set your schedules. (Who would say no to that?). So, this was an easy decision. How do you start a business with no finance, no real networks, and no products? You do what all first-time entrepreneurs do. No fear and jump straight in!
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