When Rodney Wilson walked across the stage to receive his bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Roosevelt University in May, it was a culmination of a 22-year struggle to complete his college education that started in an unlikely place — prison.
“Accomplishing that degree means a lot to me, because no matter what that was one of my goals in life to graduate from college,” Wilson said. “And I would be the only one in my immediate family that went to college.”
The obstacles to getting his degree began oddly enough in 1989, when Wilson landed in jail for murder. Growing up in Austin on the corner of Quincy and Lotus, gangs were second nature to Wilson. And so was school. Book learning came easy to him and he always managed to stay on the honor roll.
His academic prowess won him spelling bees, academic bowls and even a spot to attend a gifted elementary school. But Wilson didn’t go, because he wanted to stay with his fellow gang members. So Wilson sold drugs, which he saw was a way to help his single mother raise him and his two older siblings.
“Even though I was in school I grew up in the gang culture,” he said. “Just like I can remember kindergarten, I could never remember not being in a gang. It’s like what we grew up in — it was natural,” Wilson said.
But the perils of that life eventually caught up with Wilson. When Wilson was 16, he shot a rival gang member when that person attempted to rob him. From that point on, his life changed. His desire to learn, however, stayed the same. While awaiting trial in the Cook County Jail, he got his GED.
“I was always big on education no matter what so I figured school was the key,” Wilson said.
The first thing Wilson did when he started serving a 14 year sentence for second degree murder in the Danville Correctional Facility was sign up for class. At that time several community colleges, including Roosevelt University, offered classes in the state’s prison system. He received a maintenance trade certificate from Danville Area Community College and two associate degrees from Lakeland Community College. For Wilson, the idea was to do the time, not let the time do him.
“Because I was doing time, I was trying to get as many degrees as possible,” he said, adding that he wanted to take advantage of “whatever they had positive and constructive” to better himself.
In 19993, Wilson started taking classes at Roosevelt University, but didn’t finish. Good behavior and good time given for taking classes earned him an early release from prison after serving six years. When he got out, he picked up his studies where he left off. In 1995, Wilson re-enrolled at Roosevelt’s downtown campus.
“I was so full of ambition and full of hope and dreams that I had big plans for my life finishing college was one of them,” Wilson said.
But trouble was not too far behind. Wilson was going to school and had a job as a medical case manager for a West Side nonprofit, but the lure of the streets pulled him back in. Close to finishing his degree, Wilson was back in prison in 1998 for armed robbery.
“I never did leave the gang. I was still affiliated,” Wilson said.
Serving a 15-year sentence, Wilson fell back into his routine of taking college courses while at Jacksonville Correctional Center. He amassed enough credits to obtain his bachelor’s degree, but he wanted it to be from Roosevelt University instead of a local community college in Jacksonville, IL.
“I started there. I wanted to finish there,” he said.
But it would be a couple more years yet before he received his degree. He had given up his gang ties. But while attending a New Year’s party in 2006, Wilson was arrested when police found a gun on the premises. Though he was unaware that the homeowner had the weapon, Wilson’s criminal background landed him in federal prison serving 79 months for possession of a firearm.
His time there had a profound impact on him. College course were not offered in federal prison, but he found himself spiritually. He reconnected with God and served as a mentor for prison Bible study. But hearing the news of the violence back home made Wilson re-evaluate his purpose in life. He counts himself lucky that he was not dead or serving life in prison like many of his fellow gang members.
“My sole purpose in life had to be to share my life experience to help other people not go down the path I went through,” said the self-published author, who penned a fictional autobiography about street life in Chicago.
In 2013, when he got out of prison for what he said is the last time, Wilson wanted to help kids avoid the mistakes he made. He enrolled back into Roosevelt and started volunteering with Jehovah Jireh Outreach Ministry. The program’s founder was a former gang member and childhood friend of Wilson. Wilson said they both had a passion for mentoring youth. The two would bring in fellow ex-gang members who have turned their lives around to share their past with to the youths.
“Kids will tell you immediately if you ain’t been though it and know what they came from in this life, they don’t want to hear from you,” Wilson said. “They feel like you don’t understand what they’ve been through or where they’re coming from.”
With a bachelor’s degree in hand, Wilson wants a job where he can parlay his experience with gangs and prison to help at-risk youths. For now, he operates an Oak Park salon with his wife Yvette, whom he has known since kindergarten. His life, Wilson said, shows that there is life after prison, life after being a gang member.
“You can have better life, a brighter life [with] no looking behind your shoulder,” Wilson said.