“Ms. Miah, it’s nice to be ambitious, but you shouldn’t get your hopes up about getting into Harvard. It’s a really competitive school and having a felony might make your chances of gaining acceptance unlikely.”
I shifted in my seat and adjusted my hijab, unsure how to respond. I gritted my teeth and half-smiled. Were I not accustomed to this type of response, I may have lost my composure. Should I have been upset with her? Or should my rage have fallen on the society that created this misguided belief?
As a felon, pursuing medicine the past two years has not been easy. People think that once you’ve completed your prison sentence, you are free. This is far from the truth. Criminal records will always follow us, becoming potential barriers to relationships, careers, and mental well-being.
Recently, one of the most prestigious hospitals in the world offered me a volunteer opportunity at their institution. I was elated. But when that same opportunity was rescinded overnight, I was not surprised. They had discovered the Attempted Murder I was charged with when i was 16 and thought that made my position at their hospital doubtful. This was the fifth hospital rejection I had received in the two years I had been home. Other hospitals saved me the time of fruitless interviews by indicating that violent felons were automatically disqualified from applying.
This series of rejections was quite disheartening. After all, medical schools place a high value on patient care, and I needed a volunteer position to prove my potential. With a felony lingering over me, it was particularly critical for me to prove myself to be a desirable and competitive candidate.
I realized that I had a decision to make: I could either be complacent with the way society was, avoiding the conflict, uncertainty, and rejections that come with quitting. Or I could accept the difficulties that come with overcoming obstacles that few—if any at all—have overcome, and open a door for others.
In truth, the thought of giving up appealed to me at first. It seemed the least conflict-ridden and most desirable route, initially. But then I thought about all the people who had made mistakes like me in their past and were actively struggling to change their lives. Suddenly, my friend Abi came to mind. She had a similar history as mine, but she had become so successful in the few years after her release. She had finished her BA and became a PhD candidate in a matter of a few years after her release. Not only did she not allow her criminal record to impose restrictions on her education, but she even created projects to give back to disadvantaged youth in her neighborhood. Abi’s remarkable turnaround was one of few examples that I leaned on to maintain hope. So, was it acceptable for me to undergo this experience without making the path easier to tread for others? Could I be comfortable going through this hardship without making any impact? The more I questioned, the more I understood that giving up was not an option. Instead, I had to find another point of entry into medicine. At that point, I realized more than ever, that I had to continue moving forward and fighting a broken system that prevented people from pursuing medicine or simply enjoying second chances, long after they had finished serving time for their misdeeds.
I have learned that when I adjust my mindset so that I start prioritizing the different ways that accomplishing my goals can help others, I become a powerful force against the barriers that I confront. That is mainly why I have decided to pursue law right now. Indeed, I am aware that the abrupt, yet timely, decision requires the postponement of my dream of becoming a doctor. At the same time, I know that by pursuing law, I will be arming myself with the knowledge and ability to make that dream a reality for myself and others.
Two years have gone by since my release and despite the obstacles, I continue to seek out opportunities to get closer to achieving my goals. If you can’t find a place for yourself, you have to make a space for yourself. I am grateful that I presently have an opportunity to write for QC Voices. Here, I can discuss prison politics and address some of the dehumanizing aspects of prison culture and mass incarceration. I am also a public health fellow for Bard Prison Initiative, where I am working on a project to amend the Raise the Age law to protect minors from being sent to adult prisons. That way, they could avoid confronting the same limitations that I confronted because of my criminal record. And if things continue in the same direction, I will, God willing, graduate with highest honors next semester. I am currently applying to law schools, including Harvard. Maybe my counselor is right, and I am getting my hopes up by aiming for Harvard. But there’s no way of knowing if I never try. After all, the quickest way to fail is by not trying at all.