Helen Skipper – known as Skip – may be 35 years older than most St. Francis College freshmen, but she shares every bit of their excitement about starting her first year here.
Skip, 53, is enrolling in St. Francis as part of the Post-Prison Program, an initiative launched in 2014 by Dr. Emily Horowitz, Professor, Sociology & Criminal Justice, to help formerly incarcerated women and men earn their college degrees.
Eleven students have already matriculated at St. Francis via the Post-Prison Program, completing the same rigorous coursework as their peers. Four have graduated so far.
While Skip will undoubtedly become a familiar face to many at 180 Remsen Street come September, she's already well-known among a growing number of New Yorkers.
Skip lends a sympathetic ear to anyone who needs to talk about their problems as part of Friendship Benches, a program run by the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene where Skip works as a Peer Supervisor.
Modeled on a successful initiative in Zimbabwe meant to alleviate people's mental health challenges, New Yorkers sidle up to Skip when they spot her on a bright-orange Friendship Bench set up in public spots around the city.
Skip reflected on her road to St. Francis and her history with the criminal justice system.
How did you find you way to St. Francis College?
I found my way to way to St. Francis through John Jay [College]. I entered into the John Jay Navigator Certificate In Human Services and Community Justice...It is a... certificate built for people who have lived experience in criminal justice.
My goal was to continue with my college education at John Jay...[but] the only way I could go to John Jay [as an undergraduate, after earning my certificate] was to take 24 credits elsewhere [first]. And I really didn't want to do that. I had my eyes set on my prize. I didn't want to wait.
And then, a classmate of mine had met Dr. Horowitz...and found out about the Post-Prison Program. She was like, "Hey, I found this college...They're willing to take us. They willing to speak to us."
Did you visit St. Francis College after that?
A lot of us went to an orientation that Dr. Horowitz set up for us. I think it was in May, and I was just so amazed. I felt welcomed. I felt at home... I found someplace that will really support me and then I can support them in whatever way that I can.
And I went through the process. Did the admission, got accepted, went to my orientation. I'm so excited. I'm just like one of these kids that just graduated high school and is getting ready to go to college.
Tell me a little more about your career in recent years.
I am a New York State Certified Peer Specialist and Recovery Coach.
When I was ready to begin my [drug addiction] recovery process, I just started training myself and getting certification on top of certification. Now I'm Peer Supervisor at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene
I also speak on panels for CUCS. They train agencies and organizations about how to deal with criminal-justice involved people. I speak on their crisis intervention training panel for the NYPD about once a month, or every other month.
What was your experience with high school?
I was doing okay in [high] school, but I always did okay in school. I was the type that never had to study. I comprehend and retain information very well. But I was bored. I stopped going. My mom realized I wasn't going to school, and she sat me down and she was like, "okay, you got to at least get your GED." I was 16.
I passed my GED, and I enrolled myself in Queensborough [Community College]. And that's how I happened to get to college before my classmates got to college.
Do you mind talking about your incarceration history?
Not a problem. I was addicted to drugs. [As far as my crimes], there was never violence or crimes against persons or anything like that. But I was addicted to drugs. I was doing petty crimes and little crimes so I could afford my drugs...But eventually I always got caught.
I went to jail for the first time at 18, literally a year and a half after I started college. I was in my early 40s when I came home for the last time. I used to go back and forth to jail, every year I would end up getting arrested.
The last time I came out, I went to a [drug] program out of the city, which did wonders for me. That was in 2007 and I have not looked back since.
How did you get involved in Friendship Benches?
I've been working with Friendship Benches since Friendship Benches started [in July 2017].
The person who put it all together, who took the idea from Zimbabwe and reworked it to make it into a New York City thing, she called me for an interview one day...We did a phone interview, and the next day she was like, "okay, your first day is XYZ."
Me and the community manager are the only two original people who started when Friendship Benches started. We've worked so hard and so long.
What will you study at St. Francis?
Definitely criminal justice...I know the world is mine and I have a number of options, but I know that the main thing is criminal justice and sociology.
How will your degree help your career?I'm a peer [worker], which means I use my lived experience to help guide and mentor and support others. I will always do that...but I figured the only way that I can be the peer that crafts policy and procedure is to get my education.