Red Rocks Community College Gateway Program
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
From the podium situated at the front of the room to the tables set up in uniform rows to the individuals sitting in identical chairs, speckled throughout, this classroom could be any college classroom across the country. The stories that emanated from this little, plain room on Wednesday, August 7, however, were anything but common. These were the stories of students participating in College Gateway, a program hosted by Red Rocks Community College since 2006.
Gateway is a program that welcomes former offenders and is dedicated to reducing recidivism through education. The program does not discriminate against any type of offense, nor offender. Modeled upon the work of Viktor Frankl—a physician and therapist who survived the Holocaust and is often connected with the principles inherent in both existential philosophy and psychotherapy— Gateway’s main tenet is that everyone has a purpose, and discovering that purpose helps a person determine who he or she wants to be. Rooted in students’ life experiences, the self-examination process leads to a deeper awareness and understanding of one’s true self. This approach differentiates Gateway from more common job readiness programs as Gateway graduates emerge ready to contribute to their communities as productive and responsible citizens.
Prior to heading to class, I had the opportunity to sit down withCathy Lachman, Education/Career Advisor for the Gateway Program and 30 year veteran of the police force, and Tumbleweed, a current Gateway student. According to Cathy, “We run this program like a family.” Gateway maintains an open door policy at all times. Cathy believes that assistance must be available for the students when they are in need of support, and understands that Gateway students have very different needs from traditional students. The program operates with the strong belief that every individual has the opportunity to change, regardless of the shadow of their past. Tumbleweed shared that the most poignant change he has experienced in the program is that somebody believes in him and believes he could change. He has begun to believe in himself, and stopped believing that external events are responsible for all of the bad things that have happened to him during his lifetime. He talked about having to learn basic skills, things that most students would take for granted, in order to be successful in higher education. Tumbleweed talked about having to change his attitude in order to be successful at Gateway and shared his mantra that he is “not here to be loved or liked by you, just to be successful.”
Ninety percent of Gateway students are still on probation or parole. In 2011, the recidivism rate was 2.2%. A recent studyconducted by a DU Professor W. Neil Gowensmith reports that while students were in the program, they used alcohol or drugs less frequently, experienced a higher quality of life and better self-esteem, thought less about criminal activity, and had fewer legal issues. The 2011 Gateway Report states that 51% of the students who went through the program in 2011 continued on with their education at Red Rocks or other institutions of higher education.
Gateway students all write a SCAR paper, exploring how physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual scars have shaped their lives in a positive or negative way and how those experiences have helped to form their personal truths. Each year, with the students’ permission, the RRCC Theater Department reviews the SCAR papers and selects a handful to be performed in different venues across the state. On the last day of class- the day my colleague, Katie, and I attended--students have the opportunity to personally share their SCAR papers with their classmates.
Revelation after revelation, one consistent sentiment struck me: Gateway students would not trade their scars or forget the pain they endured. Their scars created the person they have become, the person standing in front of a classroom of people, exposing some of the most painful parts of their past. These scars have become defining moments in the exploration of their true selves.
As each scar was revealed, a truth emerged from within those four walls; a reminder of where we all find strength and the words of the program’s inspiration - “What is to give light must endure burning.” – Viktor Frankl