A detail photograph of a student inmate's hands at the Berkshire County House of Corrections, where Williams students are tutoring inmates who are about to be released and are taking a high school equivalency exam called HiSET.

Positive Pathways

A partnership between the Williams College Center for Learning in Action (CLiA) and the Berkshire County House of Corrections offers tutoring in writing, reading and math to inmates planning to take the HiSET, a high school equivalency exam, in preparation for their upcoming release.

The Positive Pathways Partnership (P3) is coordinated by Sharif Rosen, a CLiA assistant director and the college’s Muslim chaplain. He volunteered as a prison chaplain before coming to Williams in 2015, an experience he says showed him firsthand how important such programming is to a population he describes as “entirely forgotten.”

“I helped start P3 because I wanted to think about the ways in which we in our community can write new narratives and create venues for hope where you may least expect to find them,” says Rosen. “We have huge, systemic criminal injustice issues in our country, and P3 is one avenue through which we can seek local ways to become part of the change that needs to happen.”

Rosen says the student inmates in the program are a motivated group, eager to get their high school diplomas and begin a new chapter of their lives. To help them achieve that goal, Williams student tutors travel to the jail once a week to work in small groups with inmates on concepts that will be covered on the HiSET.

Omar Kawam ’20 has been a P3 tutor since the program began in the fall of 2016. He heard about P3 soon after arriving at Williams as a first-year student, and although he had no experience with inmate populations, he had tutored his peers in high school. “I wanted to ground my college experience within the wider community and to make a tangible difference in someone’s life,” he says.

Kawam took an orientation course at the jail with several other Williams students, including Diana Sanchez ’17. By November they were driving to Pittsfield every Thursday to work two-on-one with a student inmate who later took—and then passed—his HiSET. “It was great to witness that firsthand,” Sanchez says.

Sanchez is now a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, through which she serves as a re-entry coordinator in Arizona. “I wouldn’t be where I am now if it hadn’t been for P3,” says the biology major, who is currently applying to graduate programs in public health. “I walked away from each session feeling like I made an impact, however small it might have been.”

Says Kawam, who tutored an inmate last academic year and through the summer, and who continues to tutor now, “P3 is one way that Williams reaches out to people in the greater community.” He hopes to follow a pre-med track at Williams and go on to a career as a doctor.

“P3 has also had an effect on me personally,” Kawam adds. “The experience has really grounded me, and I know I’m gaining skills that will help me interact with my patients in the future.”

Another Williams student, Glen Gallik ’18, is spending Winter Study in January examining best practices in adult basic education as the Berkshire House of Corrections looks to improve its tutoring programs for basic math and reading literacy. Rosen hopes to use these findings to expand P3’s volunteer services in the future.

“When the right students and the right tutors come together, they create very powerful, intangible but potent, interactions,” says Rosen. “Those are the kinds of connections that help inmates, however momentarily, transcend the walls of the institution.” And that, he believes, will help the inmates served by P3 find a positive pathway in the future.

—By Julia Munemo