HARLEM — Selina Fulford spent her 30s going in and out of prison and the next two decades of her life in and out of classrooms.
Since being released from a state prison in 2001 after spending two and half years for selling drugs, Fulford, 56, earned a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees and is currently trying to earn a third.
Each degree is proof that Fulford, who went on to teach at the College of New Rochelle after her release and now works at the Bowery Residents’ Committee, is a lot more than a former drug addict who got locked up, she said.
“I’m trying to fight the stigma of being a felon, of being a convict,” she said. “That’s why I’ve gotten so many degrees.”
To help her transition from the jail cell to the classroom, Fulford joined the College and Community Fellowship. The Morningside Heights-based organization helps current and formerly incarcerated women turn their lives around by helping them gain access to higher education.
Participants work with an academic counselor to find the right schools and scholarships for them, and once they are in school they have a support system of other students, alumni and tutors to help them through the course, according to CCF.
Fulford heard about the organization when a friend invited her to one of their meetings.
“All of the women were talking about their success, and I wanted to get what they got,” she said.
On Monday, the organization hosted a summer block party in front of the State Office Building on 125th Street to help recruit new students.
The organization has been around since 2000 and it has helped more than 300 women earn degrees, according to CCF.
For formerly incarcerated people, one of the biggest hurdle to getting services is putting themselves out there. They are often hesitant to attend open calls or meetings for fear of outing themselves as having a criminal history, a CCF spokeswoman said.
The back-to-school block party, which had a live DJ and entertainment, was an informal way to get more people aware of the services they offer, the spokeswoman added.
Fulford joined four alumna of the organization to perform a play about their experiences about the difficulty of getting a job after getting out of prison or struggling to stay out of prison for good.
In New York State, about 44 percent of people who are incarcerated end up back in the system. When it comes to women who have graduated from the program, the recidivism rate is less than 2 percent, according to CCF.
One of the four women on stage was Vivian Nixon, the organization’s Executive Director. Nixon, a graduate of the program, started advocating while serving time in state prison for a drug offense.
“What really helped to me to change my life was noticing how many women who were incarcerated had little to no education,” she said.
Nixon, 55, joined CCF and earned a degree in nonprofit management from the State University of New York Empire College before eventually getting a job with the organization.
CCF is different from other re-entry programs because they are long-term, she said. The program sticks with their students as long as they maintain a 2.5 GPA in undergraduate courses and a 3.0 GPA in graduate school, she said.
In 2006 she became their Executive Director.
“They were really courageous in giving me the opportunity,” she said.