Rodney White entered prison in 1991 and served more than 15 years for drug dealing. But next December he plans to graduate from the University of Richmond's School of Continuing Studies.
White, 46, was a member of a Richmond-area gang called the "West End Crew" from 1987 to 1991. Police accused the group of dealing as many as five kilograms of cocaine a week, as well as crack and heroin in the area of Meadow and Cary streets.
White said he had never used any of the drugs he transported, but he had been addicted to the money associated with the drug trade. In high school, he was already a father of two children. For the self-described awful student, drugs were the answer.
"I just did not see working a job and being able to take care of [my children]," he said. "But it became a lavish lifestyle. There were trips to Vegas and the Bahamas, Mercedes-Benzes."
Even with his poor high school grades, which White called a "passport to the penitentiary," he was able to attend Norfolk State University, although he dropped out after two years.
"I was a slick kid," he said. "I could articulate. In my generation, that could get you where education would not. I just knew how to treat people. I knew how to act.
"People would say, 'Rodney can talk his way into anything.'"
After his stint in college, White entered the Navy, but after two years stationed in Norfolk he went absent without leave (AWOL) to sell drugs. His duty in the gang was to deliver drugs to other gang members to be sold. While travelling state to state to pick up and deliver drugs, White wore his Navy uniform to deflect suspicion.
In September 1991, he was returning home from Newport News with fellow gang member and friend Daryl Carpenter when they were stopped on Interstate 64 and arrested. Police found a third of a kilogram of cocaine hidden in the door of their car and two pistols.
White was 26 at the time, and had five children. He was convicted on four federal drug charges: conspiracy to possess and distribute narcotics, carrying a firearm in relation to a drug trafficking offense, possession with intent to distribute cocaine and possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. As a first time non-violent drug offender, White was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Carpenter was sentenced to 32 years in prison, a sentence he is still serving.
"I was basically a bright kid that made some dumb mistakes," he said. "That was the difference between me and most of everybody around me. Primarily what you see in prison most of the time are people who lack education. I knew the difference (for me) would be to have an education."
As a challenge to himself in prison, White came up with a plan of what he wanted to do when he was released.
"If you don't think like that going in, you're not going to think like that getting out," he said. "It was in my mind that I had to go back to school."
White said he believed the only way he could overcome his past was through education, so he read books in prison continuously.
"When you're doing 15.5 years, they give you enough stuff to occupy your body," he said. "They give you weights, you work, but they can never give you enough to occupy your mind."
White said he didn't have pin-up girls or car rims on his wall like other prisoners; he had quotes on his cell walls.
"That's what built the desire for reading books," he said. "Because for all the motivational speakers I had read, like Jack Canfield, there was always a sense of education... Basically everyone that overcame something learned something, or learned something about themselves."
During White's prison stay he served time in 13 different locations. He found solace working in the prison law libraries. He helped a fellow prisoner write an appeal that got him out of prison. He also spoke to children in a program that aimed to deter them from committing crimes that would put them behind bars.
White said it took him until he was 35 five years old, nine years after he entered prison, to be able to talk about his past.
"I was so ashamed," he said. "But because I saw that these kids needed this, I was able to open up."
When he was released, he decided he wanted to attend the best school he could possibly afford. For him, that was University of Richmond's SCS.
"I hit the ground running," White said. I had a stack of note cards with 100 goals on them that I wanted to achieve. I used to go through them three times everyday. It would take me about 15 minutes each time.'
White initially thought he would complete a certificate program through the SCS, but after making As in his first four classes, he decided to go to school full time. White, a liberal arts major with minors in paralegal studies and leadership, currently holds a 3.63 GPA.
To support himself, White works as a car salesman, and is also a motivational speaker. He participates in University of Richmond's Street Law program, which gives him a chance to speak to children about his past. The program has allowed him to speak to children across the Richmond area. One of the venues, the Northside YMCA, was a place he visited frequently as a child.
"I tell (the children), that big time drug dealer you ascribe to be, selling the keys and driving the cars... that's me," White said.
"This is what happened to me because of doing that. Some of these kids think they have to go out and live that, and not educate themselves. You can't listen to (rap artists The Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac) and watch (the movie) Scarface all day and have balance. I like Biggie, I like Pac, but with a young mind they're not able to discern what is real and what is not."
When asked if he could see himself as an adolescent attending the University of Richmond, White said he could not.
"The neighborhood and the environment I grew up in didn't prepare me for (the University of Richmond)," he said. "I had lived in Richmond for 20 years, and I'd never been here. If (inner-city kids) knew (the University of Richmond) was within a bus ride away, then it may feel more tangible to them... It's only through a program like Street Law that kids can see something like this."
White said that in his first year in the SCS, he never would have told anyone about his past, but now that's he proved himself as a student, he's more likely to share the fact that he's a convicted felon.
"I know everyone is not 100 percent supportive of seeing a convicted felon on their campus, but I can say, without any hesitation, that for anyone that has known about me they've been 100 percent supportive," he said. "I've had professors say that they were actually impressed that I could come from this and do this."
Amy Turner, adjunct professor for the SCS and an assistant Commonwealth attorney for Henrico County, was one of those professors.
Turner said that in the classroom White is engaged and participatory, and asks tougher questions than other students that keep her on her toes.
"He has impressed me with his desire to make something of his life," she said. "He has come back to society with a desire to get his education and contribute in a positive way. "
White said he doesn't wear his record as a badge of honor, but he's no longer ashamed of it. He was part of a local news segment televised last spring about the voting rights of convicted felons that he knew his classmates might watch.
"I got up and told the class about it, because I didn't want there to be any misinformation," he said.
Two years ago in a political science class, SCS liberal arts adjunct professor Anne Morgan asked White if he had voted.
"I told her I couldn't vote because I had been a convicted felon," he said. "I told her I was trying to get off supervised release, trying to get that changed."
Morgan wrote a letter to White's judge about the change she saw in him as a student and his relationship with other students that eventually removed him off supervisor lease.
"Following months of observing Rodney's performance as a student and his activities as a person, I became convinced that Rodney was a man of good character who was working hard to redeem his life," Morgan said. "He always kept his word and spent a great deal of his time trying to help others turn their lives around and become productive citizens... I believed that he had genuinely earned the right to a greater degree of trust from our justice system."
After spending so many years behind bars, White said he didn't expect that people would do nice things for him.
"That's the difference of being in a place of education, he said. "People will look at what you're doing now, instead of what you did then."
White's biggest regret about his life is the relationships he lost with his children. His youngest son, Roderick, is a freshman at Averett University in Danville, Va., and a starting defensive back on the football team. White was able to see him play every game this season, although he said his son doesn't really speak to him.
"The image he's had of me hasn't been a good one," White said. "I pray that the relationship gets better, but the only control I have over the situation is what I do now. If I am going to get the relationship back I need to be doing as much as I can positive, and nothing negative."
White is proud of his son, but gave all the credit for his success to his mother. Roderick's mother stopped bringing him to visit White in prison when his son was old enough to realize what prison was, White said.
"I didn't understand at first, but because of what his mother did, Roderick had no desire at all to be a part of anything like (I was)," he said.
White's daughter, however, does not share the same success story as his youngest son. She is serving 19 to 25 years in prison in North Carolina. White said she started selling drugs, and then killed a man. White goes frequently to visit his daughter in prison.
"That's probably the hardest trip I make anywhere, because I feel indirectly that I'm at fault," White said. "It's probably one of the most hurtful aspects of my life, that I have to go visit her. If she has to serve that great of a time, I hope she can look at her father's life and say my father got out of prison and did something with his life. I can do the same thing."
Contact staff writer Zak Kozuchowski at firstname.lastname@example.org