"Beyond those gates" : how the process of earning a college degree in prison shapes a person's hoped-for self.


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The purpose of this narrative inquiry was to explore how the process of earning a college degree in the prison context shaped the hoped-for selves of 23 formerly incarcerated individuals. My research focus was twofold: First, I wanted to understand how the content of participants’ hoped-for selves changed as a result of earning a college degree in prison; then, I wanted to understand what aspects of the higher education in prison (HEP) context contributed to those changes. Using a conceptual framework that combined symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1969) with possible selves theory (Markus & Nurius, 1986; SI-PSs), I was able to explore how certain contextual factors–namely, learning interactions and the physical environment–influenced what participants understood to be desirable, yet plausible, for themselves in the future. Findings revealed that participants tended to envision their future selves in increasingly community service-oriented terms while attending college in prison. Additionally, participants often saw themselves pursuing further education in the future. These community-oriented, academic future selves remained consistent even after one’s release from prison. Further, findings highlighted how interactions where participants felt validated by their faculty, connected to their peers, and/or were able to develop increased self-awareness significantly influenced how they viewed themselves in the future. Participants’ hoped-for selves were, in other words, largely shaped by three overlapping processes which I refer to as confirmation, connection, and contextualization. These processes each necessitated and facilitated a capacity to be vulnerable and expose oneself emotionally in an environment where vulnerability was typically discouraged. This study thus underscores the importance of vulnerability in the prison college classroom, as well as the unique ways in which the prison environment may, paradoxically, enhance a person’s learning experience. Implications for research, theory, and practice are outlined and discussed.