The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Georgetown Pivot Program offers ex-inmates a fresh start

Georgetown Pivot Program graduates and faculty at the 2020 and 2021 cohort graduation ceremony. (Phil Humnicky/Georgetown University)
Placeholder while article actions load

The ceremony at Georgetown University on Wednesday opened with the familiar strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” as graduates, wearing robes and mortarboards with tassels, filed into the auditorium.

But their stories and the journeys they shared were very different from those of most students.

All had served time in prison. And all of them were celebrating the opportunity for a fresh start.

They crowded into a university auditorium after successfully completing the Georgetown Pivot Program, a three-year-old initiative involving the university’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, the McDonough School of Business, and the D.C. and federal governments.

The program is designed to help those formerly incarcerated transform the ordeal of prison into the ability to succeed.

“The journey through Pivot raises another question: ‘What’s next?’” Charles Hopkins, 69, a District resident who spent 48 years behind bars, told the audience during an hour-long ceremony that was also live-streamed. “In prison, your ‘What’s next?’ is always given to you. Your time is regimented.”

But through Pivot, participants were given a schedule of classes and expected to give it their all.

The program is part of the Second Chance Business Coalition, which also works to prepare former inmates with job opportunities. It is open to anyone 25 or older who lives in the District, has earned a high school diploma or equivalent, and has served time in prison within the previous two years.

Classes cover personal finance, business etiquette and career planning, and include professional internships. Participants also receive stipends from the D.C. Employment Services Department.

Alyssa Lovegrove, a faculty member of Georgetown’s McDonough Business School and academic director of the program, said 41 fellows have completed Pivot, including 12 women. All have been African American whose ages range from 24 to 70.

“We are trying to allow the people in the program to access careers that would otherwise be out of reach,” Lovegrove said in an interview.

The approximately nine-month program costs about $45,000 per fellow, with the costs largely borne by the university and the District. About 35 businesses and organizations — including Founding Farmers, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Deloitte — also have contributed, often by offering internships. The program is part of a broader movement not only to give people a second chance after their time in prison, but to live with a sense of full forgiveness.

“We have been labeled with scarlet letters: F-E-L-O-N-S,” said Kaamilya Finley, 42, of the District, who told of a long struggle with drug addiction that led to periods of homelessness, prostitution and prison. She broke down as she described how sorry she was that her late mother couldn’t witness her moment onstage — but how glad she was that her two children were in the audience.

“I needed them to see that I was capable of making a decision with them in mind,” she said.

Jeanine W. Turner, a professor in Georgetown’s Communication, Culture, and Technology Program, described how the program reshaped the students’ lives and, thanks to a social worker in the program, the way they see their life’s story. The heart of the narrative, she said, did not have to be prison or a record of criminal behavior, but the moment they turned toward a different way of life.

“You have to change the way you tell the story,” she said. “If you keep ending the story with the way you were arrested, then no matter how long you’ve been out of jail, mentally you’re still there, and you’re the one still keeping you there.”

And yet many return to prison because they find that society is often too eager to shut down other options. Job offers and apartments can disappear after a background check. Potential investors have second thoughts.

“Listen, I understand a little bit about the hesitation. But you have to understand, I guarantee if you look at every single person’s family, they have somebody who’s been in the criminal justice system,” said David Schultz, who graduated from this year’s program. “You need to give people second chances. We are not our worst mistakes. We are human.”

Wednesday’s ceremony honored a class of students who had completed the entire program mostly through Zoom because of the pandemic. It also included fellows who graduated from the program last year but couldn’t celebrate their achievement with a ceremony, also because of the pandemic.

Schultz, 42, grew up in Falls Church, Va., and moved to the District as an adult, he said in an interview. His parents were educators, and he enjoyed growing up in a close-knit suburban setting.

But he became addicted to drugs and, after losing a job at a gym in D.C., began dealing, too. He was busted and sent to federal prison in 2015. As the pandemic swept through the prison, confinement seemed even more horrifying, he said.

“You can’t physically see the virus, but the 4 o’clock [head] count would come, and people would just be dropping,” Schultz said. “It just was bad.”

At D.C. jail, prisoners have been in lockdown for a year because of the coronavirus

It was also not his first time in prison for drugs, but it was his longest. But this time, and with the help of his family, he knew what he would need to do to make sure he wouldn’t find himself there again.

“I just decided that I really wanted to turn everything around, do the right thing,” Schultz said.

Schultz sought out educational programs, including a Federal Prison Industries’ UNICOR apprenticeship that involved editing for the U.S. Patent and Trade Office. He also obtained certification as a paralegal through a correspondence course at Adams State University in Colorado and used his skills to help dozens of fellow inmates apply for early release on compassionate grounds because of the pandemic.

After serving part of a five-year term, he was given early release at noon on June 30, 2020 — exactly a year before he would cross the stage to collect his certificate.

As he looks back, Schultz said, he focuses on the positive changes the experience wrought in him more than regret for the behavior that led him there.

“It’s opened my eyes to different struggles that individuals have, but not only that, my own strengths,” Schultz said.