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A man started his college degree in prison. Can he finish on the outside?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Getting an education betters the chances that people who are released from prison don't end up back inside. For the last two years, NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been reporting on several men working on their bachelor's degrees while incarcerated. It's an opportunity many more people will have starting next year when the federal government opens up Pell grants to people in federal and state prisons. Yesterday, we met student Daniel Duron. Today, Elissa picks up where Daniel has been released and now has to work on finishing his degree as a free man.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey, Floyd (ph), they can come in now.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Most of Daniel Duron's college experience started inside a medium security prison in Norco, Calif.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Presentations will start promptly at 1:45.

NADWORNY: But an early release means he now has to finish his college classes on the outside. And going from nearly five years in a cell to strolling around a liberal arts campus...

DANIEL DURON: It's a lot bigger than I thought. It's going to be a long - a lot of walking.

NADWORNY: That's a lot for anyone. But Daniel, he's an especially nervous guy. New things, uncertainty, they unsettle him. It's a holdover from years in prison and a traumatic childhood in a dysfunctional and often unstable family.

DURON: Yeah, you park there.

NADWORNY: But family is family. And Daniel hasn't seen his in a long time.

You ready for this?

DURON: Yeah (laughter).

NADWORNY: So on the same day he was released from prison, after he visits campus...

DURON: Hey, little man.

(CROSSTALK, LAUGHTER)

NADWORNY: ...His mother, Virginia (ph), greets him, her arm around Daniel's 11-year-old son who he hasn't seen in more than a year.

VIRGINIA: He's going to school, baby. He's going to be a college graduate.

NADWORNY: One of Daniel's challenges, like many people getting out of prison, will be resisting the pull of his past. Home, family - for Daniel, it's associated with gangs, drugs and pain. The tattoos on his arms, his neck are a constant reminder and one he's determined to shed.

DURON: And it's not even art. It's just, like, gang tattoos.

NADWORNY: Daniel tells his mom going to an elite college like Pitzer offers a totally different world.

DURON: I try to explain to you, like, how, like, life-changing it is. But...

NADWORNY: She's excited for Daniel. She even has a Pitzer bumper sticker on her car. But she's also worried about old influences, his old homeboys. They could derail him. You've got to stay focused, she tells him.

VIRGINIA: And it's up to you to finish for yourself and for your son...

DURON: Yeah.

VIRGINIA: ...Because look at - there's no homeboys here.

NADWORNY: Over the next few months, Daniel starts to set up his life on the outside. He gets a paid internship at the college. And he moves into an on-campus apartment with another formerly incarcerated student.

DURON: No, it's really heavy. It's books.

NADWORNY: And last fall, he started classes in-person.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: My name is Miguel Tinker Salas. I always taught my classes with music.

NADWORNY: Outside of prison, Daniel is choosing his own course schedule. And a class learning about his Mexican identity was a top priority.

SALAS: (Speaking Spanish).

DURON: No.

SALAS: (Speaking Spanish).

DURON: Yeah, I know some Spanish. I just can't speak fluently.

SALAS: That's fine. That's fine. The class is not in Spanish.

NADWORNY: Daniel is eager to throw himself into the experience of being a college student. But when producer Lauren Migaki and I check back in with him a few weeks later, he's having a tough time. There's so much newness. He's been so nervous about the experience, he's nearly given himself a panic attack. Plus, on campus in his early 40s, with a shaved head and arms covered in tattoos, he sticks out. Daniel tells us it's not uncommon for other students to ignore or avoid him.

DURON: Overall, like, in general, like, in groups and stuff, like, it's really kind of hard. I go into the dining hall, you know, I usually eat, like, lunch or dinner by myself. And, yeah, it's been a little tougher than I thought.

NADWORNY: Even things like Google are overwhelming.

DURON: A lot of the sites that I click on have nothing, really, to do with what I'm looking for. I already had got a headache from, like, just hitting roadblocks.

NADWORNY: On top of all the stress and doing the readings and writing papers...

UNIDENTIFIED PAROLE OFFICER: What's the progress on that right now?

NADWORNY: ...Daniel's navigating visits from his parole officer.

UNIDENTIFIED PAROLE OFFICER: So campus life is good so far?

DURON: Yeah. Meeting people, like...

NADWORNY: He's making sure Daniel's hanging out with the right people, avoiding interactions with the police...

UNIDENTIFIED PAROLE OFFICER: I'm going to test you, OK?

NADWORNY: ...And getting him to pee in a cup for a drug test.

UNIDENTIFIED PAROLE OFFICER: You're good, right?

DURON: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PAROLE OFFICER: OK. Let's test you.

DURON: OK.

NADWORNY: Daniel knows his tendency is to retreat when he gets overwhelmed or nervous.

DURON: So I'm just trying to, like, get out of, like, my comfort zone.

NADWORNY: He tries rock climbing. He's gone hiking. And he's found real joy at a club he'd never imagined himself in, ballroom dancing.

DURON: I went, like, three times already. They had bachata, tango or something. And then we had a waltz. Yeah.

NADWORNY: What was that like?

DURON: Intimidating because, like, I only dance, like, when I'm alone, like, goofing around and stuff.

NADWORNY: When we visit him right before finals, even Daniel's appearance has changed.

DURON: It's way lighter.

NADWORNY: He's been undergoing treatments to remove his tattoos. His forearms, normally covered in dark black ink, are now a soft gray.

DURON: But I just wish it was off already.

NADWORNY: By the end of the semester, Daniel finishes with nearly all A's, a more confident student, a more confident and comfortable human being.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDWARD ELGAR'S "POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE MARCHES")

NADWORNY: This May, he collected his bachelor's degree, the first in his family to do so.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Daniel R. Duron.

(CHEERING)

NADWORNY: For Daniel and other formerly incarcerated students, this is a major accomplishment. But there are still some big questions. Where will Daniel work? How will he make money? At Pitzer, he's had the chance to rethink what his life is for. It's not just a life without crime, it's a life with purpose.

DURON: But I want to do something meaningful. Personally, I could probably get a job at a warehouse doing something. I don't know. But it probably doesn't have any kind of, like, meaning behind it. So...

NADWORNY: But after dozens of job applications, so far, Daniel only has a stack of rejections for full-time employment. He knows going forward that just having a college degree, even from a school like Pitzer, might not be enough to overcome his prison record and the traumas of his past.

DURON: How I was raised and what had happened and - there's no getting around it. Everything that happened in my life is shaping, like, who I've become. And honestly, to tell you the truth, like, I love being me. I really do, you know? I just got to embrace it.

NADWORNY: That's very wise.

DURON: Yeah, still working on some of it.

NADWORNY: In the meantime, he says college gave him the tools and the information to navigate a world where you have to keep going even when there are setbacks and delays.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Claremont, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOS GATOS' "BLUDAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.