GREENWICH VILLAGE — Kingsley Rowe was 18 when an accident with a handgun resulted in the death of a friend — and landed him in prison for a decade.
Nearly 30 years later, the Brooklyn-born 46-year-old is an administrator at New York University with three degrees under his belt, and is lobbying the school to give troubled kids a fair shot.
"The people who are formerly incarcerated are not asking for anything free," Rowe said. "They're looking for opportunity, that's all."
Rowe wants the school to "ban the box" — eliminate a checkbox on their college application asking the applicant if they have a criminal record.
While in prison, Rowe earned an Associates Degree from St. Francis College in Pennsylvania through the school's Prison Program. When he was released, he enrolled in NYU and got a Bachelor's Degree in Information Systems Management and a Masters in Social Work, earning funding through the prestigious Constance McCatherin-Silver Fellowship.
He has since worked with LGBTQ youth and adults, low- and no-income inner city families, and adults with severe mental illness.
He believes that his current life as a happily married father of two living in "a wonderful neighborhood" — Jackson Heights — was all "built on an educational platform," and would never have been possible if he hadn't been able to go to school.
But he lied on his NYU application decades ago, he said. Convinced he would never be given a fair shot if the admissions officers knew his history, he just didn't check the box.
"I hated having to lie about something that happened to me," he said. "[But] I didn't want to leave it up to chance. I didn't want to give someone something they could use against me."
Rowe is now a re-entry program administrator at NYU's prison education program, where he matches recently-released students from Wallkill Correctional Facility upstate with resources "on the outside," as well as a member of Education from the Inside Out, an organization that fights to eliminate barriers keeping formerly incarcerated individuals from accessing higher education.
By law, when Rowe applied for his job at NYU, the school was not allowed to ask about his criminal background until after they'd offered him the job. At that point, they did a background check and collected information with his involvement. Rowe describes the process as "really dignified."
"I was able to maintain my self-respect and my dignity," he said. "This law allows people to have dignity. It allows them to take over the narrative of having been incarcerated."
NYU already employs an academic admissions process that mimics the employment one.
As of this academic year, the first reading of all applications is done without knowledge of whether any applicants have checked the box. When an initial, tentative acceptance decision is made, the school then becomes aware of whether the prospective student checked the box. The application then goes for review to a special panel that has been specifically trained to be conscious of any bias.
The school also recently wrote the board that implements the Common App, an application used by more than 600 schools, asking them to engage in a study to consider removing the box from the application.
Rowe praised the school's new admissions process, but said he still wants the school to "ban the box," both as a symbolic move and because he feels so strongly about his alma mater. He wants everyone to "have access to a quality education, and a quality life, quality employment," as he did.
"I believe NYU is one of the finest schools in this country," he said. "This should be a non-issue."
"You can't ask someone to come out and be a productive member of society and not give them the tools to be productive," he added. "It's criminal. You're just setting them up for failure."