“I Define the I Am”: A Letter From Andre Pierce, Wesleyan Student and Cheshire Correctional Institution Prisoner

“I, like everyone else, have the prerogative to define my ‘I am.'”


Last April, we posted a letter from Andre Pierce, an incarcerated student enrolled at the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education (CPE). The responses to that post were overwhelmingly positive, but there were some comments that questioned Andre calling himself a Wesleyan student. Last year’s CPE fellow printed all of those comments and brought them to Andre in prison. Here is his response to them:

My name is Andre Pierce, and I am an African-American prisoner at Cheshire Correctional Institution. I’ve been enrolled in the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education (CPE) for five years. The CPE offers credit-bearing courses, taught by Wesleyan professors, inside prison walls. The CPE’s student population has expanded from 18 to 36 incarcerated students over the past five years. CPE has been rewarding to me not merely in an academic sense, but also in a personal sense. It has and continues to expand my worldview. It sharpens my critical thinking skills like a blade. It improves my communication skills to the level where I can seriously engage with Wesleyan professors about their academic interests. The CPE has been so life altering for me that I felt the need to share this experience with you, the Wesleyan student body, in the spring of 2013, in an essay titled Wesleyan Aids a Prisoner in Rehabilitation that was published on Wesleying.

I was deeply moved by the variety of responses. To know that you see me as one of your peers means a great deal. Your support tells me that you believe in the transformative power of higher education, not only for the free and privileged but also for the incarcerated and less than privileged. More importantly, your support tells me that my criminal history hasn’t blinded you to my humanity. However, I must admit that I was a bit troubled by a few comments that challenged my prerogative to define myself as a Wesleyan student, including: “Lol just because Wesleyan students started a program for this guy to take classes in prison does not make him a Wesleyan student.” There were similar comments that snickered at the idea that I could possibly consider myself a Wesleyan student.

Truth be told, I interpreted these derisive comments to be part of a general undercurrent of racism and bigotry that exists on campus. I felt embittered by the idea of an elitist and intolerant attitude pervading the student body, presuming that only a privileged class, removed from the cycle of systemic violence and incarceration, deserves a Wesleyan education.

However, my assumption was challenged by a writing tutor who currently volunteers with the CPE. According to her, an overwhelming majority of the Wesleyan student-body supports the idea of providing prisoners with a Wesleyan education. She reminded me that the discouraging comments were posted by a few individuals, and she implied that they didn’t merit a response. But I’m not one to shy away from a debate. I couldn’t resist the urge to take those naysayers to task and invite you, my student peers, to join the conversation.

I, like everyone else, have the prerogative to define my “I am.” I determine who I am by what I do and who I identify with. I identify with a son who I care deeply for; thus, I am a caring father. I identify with life experiences that have afforded me unique insight and wisdom; thus, I am a student of life. I identify with a Wesleyan education that continues to improve me in countless ways; thus, I am indeed a Wesleyan student. Yes, I have a criminal history, one that will likely limit my options in the future. However, I have renounced that lifestyle and I now consider myself a criminal reformist instead of a criminal conformist. In other words, as a re-formed prisoner, I no longer conform to criminal values. Just as I retain this right to define my “I am,” every other individual should also embrace this right to self-determination.

I am not asking that my criminal history be ignored.  However, I am asking that the extent of my self-transformation be given due consideration. I am asking that educational resources, which have a proven effect on transforming the lives of prisoners, be more equitably distributed. A college education reduces recidivism by over 50%. What must be understood is that I am not the only one that stands to benefit from this education. Indeed, society benefits because a transformed prisoner translates into a safer community.

Furthermore, Wesleyan University’s namesake, John Wesley, believed that the most despised and rejected can be transformed. He demonstrated this optimistic view of a redeemable human nature by bringing his Christian ministries into prisons. John Wesley looked at those dark pockets in society and saw hope. He saw a wilted people who could be revived through the light of education.

Let us not merely adopt John Wesley’s appellation, but adopt his principles. Let the advantaged among us seek out those spaces where human nature has appeared to have deteriorated and ask ‘how can I be of service?’

Prison is not my final chapter. I am still writing my autobiography and my great works lay before me. I believe it would be a disservice to society to write off me and my peers, as though we have reached the end of our life stories. I see myself accomplishing great things in life, like serving as a positive father figure for my son, becoming an accomplished writer, and working as a motivational speaker and social activist. These are the great deeds that I hope will fill the pages of my autobiography. I proudly boast that I see the same hopes, expectations, and triumphs among my fellow students in CPE. With the help of a higher education, they, like me, can also tell their stories with a common theme: one of redemption.

If interested in working with the CPE or learning more information, contact Zach Fischman ’13 (the current CPE Fellow) at zfischman[at]wesleyan[dot]edu.

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26 thoughts on ““I Define the I Am”: A Letter From Andre Pierce, Wesleyan Student and Cheshire Correctional Institution Prisoner

  1. Fellow Student

    Mr. Pierce, thanks for this. Thanks for reminding everyone what the whole point of us being here is.

  2. Pingback: Roth on Wesleyan » Blog Archive » Center for Prison Education Receives Major Grant!

  3. Wes09

    Wow. That was a phenomenal piece of writing. Feeling proud to be a Wesleyan alum.

    Well written and speaks volume to the unique character of Wesleyan students and those involved.

    To the clowns making derisive comments; save your judgements for somehwere else.

  4. Another fellow student

    Thank you so much for sharing this. You are an eloquent writer and your piece gives me hope for the future. There is real power in education. All the best to you and your fellow students.

  5. From a fellow student

    Mr. Pierce, you are a beautiful writer. Thank you for your story. It’s an honor to share with you the identity of “Wesleyan Student”. I wish you the best with your studies.

  6. Really...?

    If this guy is a Wesleyan student then so are the tens of thousands of students who have taken MOOCs with Wesleyan professors via Coursera…

    1. Senior

      So what makes a ‘true’ Wesleyan student? Is it living on campus for four years? Is it being a douche on Wesleying and discrediting someone whose life has changed because of Wesleyan professors? Is it having your parents pay for college so you can hold your nose up at someone who is genuinely valuing their education and not viewing it as a way to exclude others from your privileged class?

      There’s clearly a difference between 36 people having consistent person-to-person tutelage from a Wesleyan professor and taking a course online while reading a screen. You do see that, don’t you?

      Get the hate out of your heart and come to terms with the fact that higher education is a way to change the world and not to continue the war of privileged class versus unprivileged class.

      Oh, and grow up.

      1. PC Police

        I’m inclined to agree, at least somewhat, with “Really…?”. I think we can all agree that being a Wesleyan student encompasses much, MUCH more than taking classes with Wesleyan professors: interactions with your fellow students and the formative experiences outside of the classroom on-campus are arguably what makes Wesleyan, Wesleyan — much more so than a one-on-one after-class discussion with your history professor about what was discussed during the lecture or reading everything assigned on a syllabus.

        I find it hard to believe that anyone can truly understand what Wesleyan really is or how it is so different from its peer institutions without having ever stepped food on campus and been a part of the physical community. I don’t necessarily think that the poster’s comment was meant to be “hateful” or spit in the face of the underprivileged (although it may be; I can’t read the mind of the poster): they bring up a valid point that being a Wesleyan student is much more than interacting with a professor who gets a paycheck from the university.

        Also, how do you know that their parents pay for their education? Personally, I’m footing the entire bill of my education (with the help of financial aid and some serious loans) and know many other students who are doing the same.

        I’m very happy that Mr. Pierce and his classmates are able to take advantage of the CPE, and I hope that other universities and prisons expand projects like this. I think that programs like this are what make Wes such a special and unique place, but I also question that anyone — inmate or otherwise– who has never been on campus or interacted with our community the way that a student who spends time on campus daily does can really be considered a “Wesleyan student”.

        1. '12

          CPE students interact with main-campus Wesleyan students every day in their classes and in their weekly study halls (there are numerous writing tutors and volunteers from the main campus involved in each class). I had the honor of volunteering in one of their study halls during my senior year and I can tell you firsthand that the discussions I had with the Cheshire Wesleyan students were some of the most engaging and intellectually stimulating I had in all 4 years at Wesleyan.

          For me, one of the reasons Wesleyan is so different from its peer institutions is because of CPE. It impacted me more than almost anything else on campus. I don’t separate my involvement at Cheshire from my experience at Wesleyan because they are absolutely one in the same. If I’m able to cite CPE as part of my Wesleyan experience, I don’t see how we can arbitrarily say that the Cheshire men can’t claim Wesleyan as their own.

    2. Alum

      Well, that’s not true. He’s earning Wesleyan credits by Wesleyan professors. Coursera doesn’t grant credits. But, of course, many colleges do grant online degrees, so your logic is inherently flawed regardless.

      The fact is that he *is* taking classes with other Wesleyan students . You just haven’t met them yet.

    3. Questions!

      Well I am a minority student who attends Wesleyan at a heavily subsidized rate and I pay for my own education and take the rest out in loans. Although the CPEs efforts are admirable, what about the Wesleyan students who also had unfavorable circumstances but worked really, really hard to get to a school like this? I am not speculating whether or not Mr. Pierce is a Wesleyan Student or not, just asking a question. What about the path we had to go through to get here? How does that factor in? Any and all opinions are welcome :)

      1. '10

        The CPE is an independent initiative, funded privately. Wesleyan works extremely hard to fundraise for financial aid. These things happen simultaneously. Wesleyan provides far more $$ to financial aid than the CPE does to enroll 30+ students (at a fraction of the cost!). So more education is more education, right? These things don’t have to be at odds. They are mutually beneficial to all.

        1. More Questions!

          Well I’m not referring to the financials alone (although I agree with you), but am referring to the times I spent in pre-college education working hard to be accepted to Wesleyan University. I’m saying what about the student body who worked hard to get here and EARNED the right to be called a Wesleyan Student? Again, I do not know Andre’s educational background to speculate whether he has earned this right or not.

          1. '10

            I don’t think all the work we do in high school is simply “working hard to be accepted to Wesleyan” — it serves an independent function, which is EDUCATION. Extracurriculars are also meant to enrich and be opportunities, not simply resume-fillers. If you mean the time spent taking the SATs and applying to college, then that is a very small sliver. CPE students have to complete their own applications (more in-depth than the common app) and complete interview cycles to be accepted. While they don’t take the SAT/ACT for the CPE, they have to take these tests to transfer their credits to another college once released. If I am missing something about your point, please expand, because to me it seems hollow.

          2. Questions

            Oh! I was not aware that they had to go through such an exhaustive application process (thank you for letting me know)! Well extracurriculars did serve an educational, enriching purpose, but I was also referring to the time put into GPA strengthening in addition to enriching ourselves with whatever activities we’ve been doing. I went to a particularly challenging high school where getting a good GPA was very, very difficult. I just don’t feel that it’s fair to compare the CPE application to our entire high school careers in addition to the application process as a whole. Yes the CPE application may be more in depth than the Common App, but is it comparable to 4 years worth of work as well? I think we’ve invested a lot more time and effort into a getting into such a school and to get a Wesleyan education.

          3. '10

            All CPE students have earned their high school degrees or GEDs. So it is exactly comparable. It’s the same thing.

          4. CPEfan

            Not quite… I think the poster above is asking how all of the preparation and work that traditional Wesleyan students do in order to get into Wesleyan compares to the preparation/work that CPE students do to get into the CPE/Wes. Although all CPE students do have GEDs or high school diplomas, I can confidently say that most, if not all, of them would not have gotten into Wesleyan had they applied in their senior years of high school.

            But that’s not the point. What makes Dre qualified and deserving is not his high school GPA, but all of these “untraditional” aspects of his background and experiences that make him extraordinarily engaged, dedicated, curious, insightful, smart, and, as we see above, eloquent.

            And the fact that he wouldn’t have gotten into Wesleyan or even applied in high school is at the heart of the (systemic) problem that the CPE works to ameliorate.

  7. Curious

    Why is he in prison? When I Google “Andre Pierce Connecticut”, the first two links insinuate that he’s a registered sex offender…

    1. Curioser

      I don’t know why he’s in prison, but I do know that your research is shoddy. Those links relate to Andrew Pierce. The first even shows a photo. Andrew and Andre are not the same person.

    2. '14

      The CPE does not take the inmate’s crime into account in the application process, nor should it. The CPE is about increasing access to higher education. It is an amazing organization and extremely beneficial to all Wes students. For the purposes of the CPE, it doesn’t matter what Mr. Pierce’s crime was.

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