Steuben Vega will accept his St. Francis College degree years after starting an unconventional educational journey.
The Brooklyn native graduated from now-defunct Eastern District High School in 1990, and, after jobs with the United Parcel Service and with clothing retailers, he eventually found himself unemployed. Unwilling to ask his strict father for help, Steuben turned to crimes that led to an arrest and conviction in 1993, resulting in 17 years incarcerated.
Steuben dedicated himself to setting his life on a new path not defined by the bad choices he made as a young man. While in prison, he embraced every opportunity to acquire new skills and education. He left prison committed to eventually earning a master's degree. Graduating from St. Francis College as part of the Post-Prison Program – an initiative to help formerly incarcerated women and men earn their college degrees here – is a critical step in achieving that dream.
Steuben, who lives in Stamford, Connecticut, recently reflected on his years incarcerated and his motivations to earn his St. Francis College degree.
In addition to being a full-time student at St. Francis College, you have a pretty demanding full-time job.
I am currently the deputy director of the Workforce Unit in The Osborne Association, which is an organization that provides services to people with criminal justice involvement. People on parole or probation.
My success at The Osborne Association did not come overnight. I was fortunate enough to work with a team of professionals that helped sharpen my skill set. After successfully managing several programs there, I was able to utilize what I have learned professionally and through my life experiences and take on roles that require more responsibility, leading up to my current role.
I manage a staff of 14 people, over four different programs. There's a bunch of direct service staff who are responsible for making the participants job ready. That includes putting together good resumes, enhancing interviewing skills so that they can be more marketable, learning how to speak about their past criminal justice involvement, knowing what their rights are as returning citizens, which is what we call people who are formerly incarcerated. We also get participants training to get them acclimated back into the community.
I have worked at The Osborne Association the entire time I attended St. Francis College.
You spent a rather large part of your own life incarcerated. Can you tell me about that?
I wound up spending 17 years in prison. I knew that I had made a poor choice [in my life]. I came from a good family. Nobody in my family has ever been incarcerated before. Everybody went to school. I was the only one in a family that was straddling the fence, so to speak, living a legitimate lifestyle for one half of my life and a different lifestyle for the other.
Within the first two years of being [incarcerated] in upstate New York, I knew that I needed to do something different and prepare for my reentry.
I started getting involved in programs and discovered a lot of value in them. I not only attended programs, I began facilitating them and, in some instances, began working with others to create programs that would help change the culture within the prison system and ultimately prepare the men for their reentry. It was through this work that I first learned about The Osborne Association.
Did those programs help set you up for the St. Francis College Post-Prison Program?
When I was incarcerated, I enrolled in a program called Rising Hope, which is a one-year certificate in ministry and human services program supported by Boricua College. I was able to earn 33 college credits there.
The one thing that I had benefited from is that Professor [Emily] Horowitz [who leads the Post-Prison Program], with the help of Dean [Kathleen] Grey and some other faculty were able to connect with people from Boricua College and get my credits transferred to St. Francis.
So right away, that put me into a sophomore year. I started my first semester with four classes, then I started doing five and six classes because I was really trying to lessen the amount of time that it would take for me to reach my goal to obtain my master's degree.
How did you originally connect with St. Francis College?
A friend of mine told me about St. Francis and the Post-Prison Program after I got released. That's how I met Emily [Horowitz].
Right before being released, I completed a correspondence course where I would send in my assignments and papers to the school and they would send me a grade for each assignment. Upon completion of my assignments, I earned a bachelor's degree in social science.
When I met Professor Horowitz, we spoke about what my plans were. I said I wanted a master's degree. Then she started asking me questions about where I got my bachelor's degree. She started Googling it and found out the institution didn't exist. My degree was fake. I was very disappointed.
One thing I knew for sure was that I always wanted to get my master's degree, so I had to make a decision. Emily said, "I would love to have you in our program. You're the perfect person to have come through this process. But we would have to start from scratch [as an undergraduate]." That was the challenge. I was 45 at the time. I said, I have to do this for myself.
Do you still plan on getting your master's degree?
Now that I'm at the point of graduating, I'm looking to enroll in an accelerated social work [master's degree] program at Lehman College.
Dr. Carl Mazza, who's the department chair over there, is somebody who knows me from inside prison and has been working very closely with my organization. He has been a guest speaker at some of the graduations that I've hosted. He's ready to support me in the process.
I'm just trying to get through this phase of graduating so that I can then move into my next endeavor, which is the graduate program. My goal is to not just go get the M.S.W. but also be a licensed social worker.