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After prison, all I wanted was a second chance at higher education. The pushback I got due to my criminal record made it feel impossible.

David BenMoshe.

David BenMoshe

  • David BenMoshe is a writer and graduate student at New York University.
  • After serving time, he says he faced some restrictions while applying to grad school.
  • He adds that despite having done his time, some people still saw him as a criminal. 

I’d just served a 30-month sentence for selling drugs and guns and was hoping to receive a formal education after being released from prison. But when I arrived at Towson University orientation to register for my college classes in the summer of 2014, I discovered that people like me were not welcome.

When I tried to submit my schedule at the orientation, I received an error message. The staff called the registrar. I was informed suddenly that I wasn’t allowed on campus, and security was called to escort me out. 

The registrar said once I finished my supervised release (the federal equivalent of probation), which was set to end in summer 2015, I could enroll in classes. It was frustrating to find this out so late after having already gone through orientation with the rest of my class, and I begged my supervised release officer for help. He asked the judge to end my supervised release early and the judge agreed, which happened just in time for me to attend classes in the fall of 2014. 

Finally enrolling, however, didn’t undo the bureaucratic mistakes that had already embarrassed me in front of my peers. 

I thought being off supervised release meant my troubles were over, but I soon discovered that some people still saw me as a criminal

In the winter of 2017, I applied to grad school. I received two offers and chose to attend the University of Florida. But after confirming I would attend, I started getting strange requests for information. 

On a call with an administrator, I learned that I’d only been accepted to their graduate school and had to apply to the university as well. It would require a separate application, a special process that the admin told me was reserved only for people with criminal records. 

I protested and said nothing about this came up in my meeting with the director or in my acceptance letter, and I’d disclosed my status in my original application. They told me that I was responsible for knowing the “policy.”

I met with lawyers to discuss my options and they all assured me not to worry. After all, I was released early from both prison and supervised release for good behavior, and now I was a straight-A student who owned a personal-training studio and helped the police department with their physical fitness training and testing. 

What else could I possibly do to prove that I deserved a second chance?

Prison is tough, but the three months waiting for a reply from the University of Florida was worse 

In prison, you know what you did and when it will end. As an ex-felon, you learn that your punishment will never end — you are, in fact, serving a life sentence.

While I waited, the graduate program kept emailing me the action steps I needed to complete to matriculate in the fall, but I got an error message every time I tried to complete them. Depression set in, and I often thought of ending my life.

Rejecting me didn’t stop the University of Florida from promoting the idea of diversity and equal opportunity. When I finally received a rejection letter stating that my past conduct did not clear its review board, I didn’t cry until I read the footer: “The Foundation for The Gator Nation, An Equal Opportunity Institution.”

Years later, I decided to try again 

I found a graduate program at NYU. It was a highly competitive program, but as a student with a 4.0 GPA, solid work experience, and many volunteer projects, I should have been reasonably confident that I had a chance.

But all I could feel was anxiety and fear. Before applying, I spoke to the program director at NYU, who personally cleared my ability to apply and told me that he believed that our criminal justice system is cruel and unusual and has to change. 

I was accepted. But when I logged on to register for my first class, I got an error message. My heart broke, and I berated myself. At this point, I thought, I should have known better. 

I sent an email and prepared for another setback. To my surprise, it was a misunderstanding. In October 2021, I began my first graduate course. 

Starting graduate school, I finally felt like I had a future to build 

I found people who believed that I mattered. I still worry about my ability to pay off my student debt, since a criminal record can be a barrier to scholarships and future work opportunities, but it gives me hope to find an institution that actually provides equal opportunity instead of merely printing a slogan on its letterhead.  

It should come as no surprise that so many ex-felons give up and end up right back in a prison cell. My strength to keep fighting came because I found people who believed in me and were willing to support me as I found my voice and a new career as a writer.  

If you’ve been through prison, you know what it’s like to suffer. In America, if you want an education and a chance to make a new life for yourself, expect more suffering. But as Martin Luther King said, “We will match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force.”

In response to a request for comment, the University of Florida said in an email to Insider that if an applicant has “a criminal history,” their application is sent to the Office of Conduct and Conflict Resolution for review per the university regulations. When asked specifically about the policy mentioned in this story that applicants with criminal records must submit two applications, UF said that “applying to UF’s graduate programs is a multi-step process for all applicants.

Towson University declined to provide or comment on the specific policies mentioned in this story and offered a link to the university policy page.

David Ben Moshe is a writer, speaker, and fitness coach. His work focuses on race relations, criminal justice reform, fitness, Judaism, and Israel.

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