From Felon to PhD
Stanley Andrisse is a 33-year-old provost post-doctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins, possessing both his MBA and PhD and participating in research about Diabetes, a disease that plagues millions, Andrisse is what most Americans would call extremely successful, and he is also an ex-felon.
Andrisse was born in Ferguson, Missouri and first took an interest in the medical field while in prison.
“While I was away my father’s health started to plummet and his condition worsened pretty quickly…while I was still in prison I’d get information through phone calls and letters and pictures of how they were amputating his legs piece by piece, up to his torso, due to complications from diabetes. That was the driving motivation behind me wanting to learn more about diabetes, the effect that it had on my dad,” said Andrisse. “While I was away I dove pretty deep into wanting to learn more and I was fortunate enough to have a professor who I met before I went away, who sent me research on the topic…while I was away I was already gaining a passion and an understanding.”
After serving his time due to drug related charges Andrisse went on to receive his PhD and MBA, however, the road was not easy.
“I’ve been denied from a number of jobs whether it was just coaching or a department store job,” said Andrisse. “I had been rejected from several PhD programs possibly due to the question…I finished my PhD in four years (a program that usually takes 6 years to complete) and I finished at the top of my class and I was getting my MBA in the process, I’m pretty sure I was qualified to get in those other programs but they chose not to let me in, I could only get into a program where I had a professor vouching for me.”
The question Andrisse is referring to is the check-off box for felony convictions. Majority of the states within the US require this question to be answered on both job and college applications. This limits the employment and educational opportunities available for ex-offenders.
Although Andrisse has faced discrimination and bias due to his conviction, it doesn’t stop him from telling his story.
“I enjoy being able to help others and it’s also therapeutic… On a day to day basis I hear so many biases and what people think of criminals and for the most part nobody knows my background so I have to just suck it up. Things come up and you have to suck it up as a convicted felon because no one really knows for the most part at your job because it may affect your being there so you kind of just don’t talk about it,” said Andrisse. “There’s a psychological part that affects you aside from the obvious things, I can’t vote, I can’t own a firearm, I have all these barriers against employment and education, there are psychological and structural barriers to deal with.”
Andrisse is currently working with the Ban the Box organization which is an international campaign geared towards helping ex-offenders with job placement and persuading corporations and employers to remove the check box inquiring about whether applicants have a criminal record. One of the reasons Andrisse chose to pursue a fellowship at Johns Hopkins was their leniency towards ex-convicts.
“I did a biomedical PhD and I strategically chose to do that coming out of prison because it not only gave me my education coming out of prison but they also paid me to do research. I got out of prison and was able to get a job and my education through having my PhD. When it was coming to an end I was a little nervous as to what I was going to do. I had tried to get some other employment and I had been denied so then when I was trying to get a job pertaining to my PhD I was a little worried about whether I was going to be able to do that.” I searched for jobs and universities that are lenient towards ex-offenders and Hopkins is actually the leading employer of returning citizens in the state of Maryland.”
The term “returning citizen” is used often in political circuits to describe ex-offenders but Andrisse believes it is rather ill-fitting.
“I don’t like using (returning citizen). I chuckle but I stop you know because I don’t think we are returning citizens because we don’t have certain rights, we’re looked at as convicts, we’re looked at as criminals and we’ll continue to be looked at in that way until that stigma is broken…I think returning citizens are not what we currently are I think it would be nice to eventually be at that stage but I think right now society still sees us as ex-convicts”
Andrisse is currently involved with several organizations seeking to advocate for prison reform and the less discrimination against ex-offenders, although the road has not been easy he remains hopeful.
“I have hope that sharing my story will have people talking about it and bring more attention to it…I think it’s good for people to see that these people, us, me, we’re just regular people. I’m just a person that has dreams and aspirations and I’m just trying to meet those.”