Christopher Garcia's journey to earning a St. Francis College degree has been anything but a straight line. His graduation is a testament to his faith in God and his unwavering commitment to rise to the opportunities he has been given.
Born in the Bronx, Christopher was in and out of that borough the first fourteen years of his life, moving when his father's military career demanded it. He graduated from The Bronx's Herbert H. Lehman High School in 1989.
After completing high school, Christopher's life took a significant detour. He learned the father who raised him was not related to him biologically, seriously straining relationships within his family. He made choices that eventually led to a seven-year incarceration, beginning at age 31.
Prison was Christopher's turning point. He had an encounter with God there and decided to change himself fundamentally. He took part in every educational program available to him and earned some college credits.
After his release, Christopher was introduced to Emily Horowitz, Ph.D., who runs the St. Francis College Post-Prison Program, which provides the opportunity for formerly incarcerated women and men to enroll at St. Francis College and earn their undergraduate degrees there. Christopher entered St. Francis College as a full-time student three years ago.
Christopher reflected on his St. Francis College career and on the role it plays in his life.
You enrolled at St. Francis as part of the Post-Prison Program. What has your experience been like at the College?
It's very interesting because I am a youth advocate. That's what I do right now. I'm the Director of Mentoring at the Bronx Defenders. Prior to that, my whole career has been in the area of mentoring youth. So it was very strange for me to be coming back to school and being in class with people the same age as those I have been mentoring the last seven years. It was very powerful for me. It gives you more points of identification with our young people, what they're going through.
How did you manage to balance both a demanding job and full-time college?
I'm blessed that I'm able to do a good amount of my work for the agency remotely. I also meet with my young people mostly in the later afternoon. I was able to take [St. Francis College] courses early in the day with regular [full-time] students. Most people my age who go to school go in the evening. My schedule gave me more engagement with younger people who really flood to school in the morning
What professors have been most critical to your success at St. Francis College?
Professor Horowitz, obviously. She has been my mentor.
The other is Jason Dubow [Lecturer of English]. The class I took with him was digital humanities. The role he played in coaching me was greater than that class. He's very quiet, but he's very intuitive. He listened very intently. Most of the things [we talked about] didn't have anything to do with school. He was just a very powerful source of inspiration and encouragement for me.
How does it feel to be completing your undergraduate college career, at a later stage in life than many graduates?
Relief and appreciation, in that order.
I'm a man with a lot of responsibility. Being a director of a program is, in and of itself, very heavy. But on top of that, I'm full-time ministry as well. I'm a pastor of my church, so there's a lot of responsibilities there too. I also received full-time custody of my children around the time that I entered college. So I was really doing four full-time jobs at the same time: my agency job, my ministry, parenting and school. This is why relief is number one.
But I'm also just very appreciative of the opportunities that I've been given and have been able to take advantage of. It's been tremendous.
How do you think having a college degree will change your life?
I believe entirely in the hand of God in my life. Truthfully, the degree doesn't help me in my career, because I've been given jobs that, on paper, require master's degrees. But because of the grace of God, because of the experiences I've had, and because of my character I've been given positions that I may not have appeared to be qualified for on paper.
But this degree that I'm getting, it's kind of [demonstrating that] God has always been with me since I've become a person who's ministerial. I've been given positions before I have the qualifications and then I've been given the opportunity to become qualified. All the education that I got, I got through scholarships or grants or some kind of sponsor. Blessing after blessing is kind of the way it's always worked for me.
Do you envision more education in your future?
Now that I'm going to finish this [undergraduate degree] I have people lining up to help sponsor me for a master's degree. I'm appreciative -- but did you hear that big breath that I took? -- I don't know how much more school I want to do.
I do know this. It really puts an exclamation point on my story. Hard work pays off. When you set your heart to change the circumstances in your life, the circumstances will conspire to open up doors of opportunity. That's pretty much my story.