by Kara Petrovic // Spring 2010
As the cell gate slammed shut, Damion Alexander listened to the bars rattling behind him. There he stood in the cold 8×12 foot, near-empty prison cell. A toilet, a sink, a metal bunk bed, a Bible and walls were all that surrounded him.
He’d been caught with contraband, cellphones to be exact, which earned him time in the “hole,” solitary confinement. The prison scene wasn’t new to Alexander. He’d been incarcerated a year after his conviction for selling cocaine in 2000.
He’d never been a religious man, but he says that changed after six months in isolation. “I was tired of trying to make decisions on my own,” he says. “I picked up that Bible and read it from beginning to end.” He says he’d never used drugs, and that he only turned to selling cocaine to support his family. Soon after graduating from high school in 1994, he started working full time and met his girlfriend, Kesha. When they had their first daughter, Khadijah, complications early in the pregnancy revealed problems with the baby’s brain development. The umbilical cord had wrapped around her neck, and Khadijah now suffers from cerebral palsy.
“I was trying to work full time after her birth, but I kept getting calls to leave and come to the hospital because of the baby,” Alexander says. “I started selling drugs to support my family. The way I was raised, I didn’t think a man should have his family on Medicaid. I’d always been a ‘Say no kid,’ but for me, it was the best option at the time.” His “best option” landed him eight and a half years behind bars. Alexander was released from an Arizona state institution in May 2008 and transferred to a halfway house in Kansas City. Once he stepped outside the prison walls, Alexander says he was “determined to do whatever it took not to go back.”
A year into the work force, Alexander was holding true to his promise. His job at CKS Packaging started at $7.65 an hour, but he continued to land raises and was promoted from front packer to machine operator. Prior to his incarceration, he’d attended the University of Alaska Anchorage. He loved education but says the idea of going back to school after his release never seemed realistic.
However, Alexander’s former senior parole officer says she knew he had potential and handed him an application for UMKC’s Benard Osher Reentry Scholarship Program. “I first learned about the scholarship through one of our community partners,” Chee King says. “Some offenders express interest in going back to school, and when they don’t, we still encourage a degree and a career. I knew that Damion had some former college experience.”
At first, Alexander says he didn’t want to give up his full-time job and return to school because he thought it was too late to earn an education. “I prayed a lot about it. I asked God what I should do, and he led me here. I’m glad I applied and happy they saw something in me. Not only am I getting a do over in life,” he says, “but I’m beginning to realize that I have a purpose.”
Alexander enrolled in his first communication classes through the UMKC College of Arts and Sciences last fall to pursue a communication’s degree. He wants to share his story as a motivational speaker and says the scholarship will help him do just that. Alexander isn’t the only awardee benefiting from the scholarship program that provides 10 nontraditional students—ages 25 to 50—the chance to start over. The program, which began in fall 2007 thanks to a $50,000 gift from the Osher Foundation, targets students who have experienced an interruption in their education of at least five years.
Candidates must also be a newly admitted or continuing student at UMKC, enrolled in a minimum of 12 hours, demonstrate financial need and maintain a 2.5 GPA. Awardees receive $7,000 a year. “Older scholars often have family and financial obligations greater than those of traditionally-aged students, and, at the same time, they have less access to financial aid,” says Mary Bitterman, Osher Foundation president. “The Bernard Osher Foundation began the expansion of its support for ‘reentry’ students in 2005 after being inspired by programs at Mills and Dominican Colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area and noting the tremendous potential represented by older students seeking their first baccalaureate degree.” The scholarship program has helped other nontraditional students, like Alexander, attend UMKC. And although each scholar’s journey to UMKC varies, they’re all reaping the same rewards: second chances.