From Transgressor to Trailblazer: A Story of Redemption and Heroism

Sometimes adversities become blessings. A defeat sparks a new resolve that produces a champion. A setback seeds a success. An adversity awakens a passion and purpose. (For me, the silver lining of hearing loss has been an avocational purpose as hearing advocate.)

Such, writ large, is the life story of prisoner-turned-prisoner-advocate Dirk Van Velzen, whom I encountered a decade ago when he wrote from a California prison. I receive occasional letters from prisoners requesting copies of one of my books, or asking questions about them. But no prison correspondent impressed me more than Van Velzen, who asked perceptive questions from his reading of my Social Psychology textbook. Our ensuing exchanges enabled me to track his progress as a distance learning student, leading to his 2010 Pennsylvania State University graduation—while still behind prison walls—with a 3.99 GPA.

This heartwarming journey, from “America’s Most Wanted” (for repeated burglaries) to honors graduate, is but the prelude to the rest of his story. Van Velzen was keenly aware that the educational opportunity he received, thanks to his father’s support, was unavailable to other able and motivated inmates. (Although prisoners can benefit from some forms of education, Congress in 1994 banned postsecondary Pell Grants to prisoners.) Undeterred by the magnitude of the challenge, Van Velzen created the Prison Scholar Fund to support other U.S. prisoners desiring higher education. With support from a handful of donors, including small grants from the Annenberg Foundation and our family foundation, and through the sale of calendars featuring prisoners’ art, the Fund has awarded 190 scholarships to 110 prisoners.

Seattle Fast Pitch Presentation (courtesy Dirk Van Velzen)

Seattle Fast Pitch Presentation (courtesy Dirk Van Velzen)

In recognition of his determined efforts, Van Velzen received a White House award for volunteer service—while still behind bars. (His good deeds notwithstanding, Van Velzen served his full 15 year term, without clemency or early release.) In the 17 months since his 2015 release, he has established a Prison Scholar Fund start-up office, housed at a Seattle Methodist church, and completed programs in nonprofit management and social entrepreneurship at the University of Washington and Stanford. When he pitched his vision in Seattle’s Social Venture Partners “Fast Pitch” competition, he finished first—and received $20,000 to help seed his program.

On my recent visit to Seattle and to his office, Van Velzen showed me the bulging files of applications from prisoners seeking higher education support, and told me of the support he receives from his new board members, from University of Washington volunteers, and from Microsoft executives. The latter are assisting him in planning—if funding becomes available—a social experiment that will assess the long-term impact of enabling prisoners to do college work.

Dirk Van Velzen (photo by David Myers)

Dirk Van Velzen (photo by David Myers)

By painstaking sleuthing, Van Velzen and his volunteers found that, among the 74 scholarship awardees released from prison with the benefit of added education, only three spent time back behind bars. But does this remarkably low recidivism rate merely reflect a selection effect—the high quality of capable, motivated prisoners who would seek higher education? Answering that question requires—as any psychology student would appreciate—an experiment that randomly assigns matched eligible inmates to either a scholarship or no-scholarship condition, and then follows their lives through time. Should the impact prove positive, it would validate both his program and a fledgling government effort to restart prisoner higher education.

Sometimes, observed Walt Disney, “A kick in the pants may be the best thing in the world for you.” Dirk Van Velzen kicked society. Society kicked him back. In response, he has become an example of how, in those blessed with gritty determination, adversity can ignite passion and purpose.