'It only takes one person to spark change'

November 29, 2021

UM-Dearborn student Penny Kane won campus’ first Policy Pitch Competition, where students presented public policy changes they'd like to see at the local level and beyond.

 Student Penny Kane at her UM-Dearborn orientation in Fall 2018
Student Penny Kane at her UM-Dearborn orientation in Fall 2018

Fifty-eight months. That’s the amount of time that will have passed from UM-Dearborn student Penny Kane’s acceptance letter to earning both her undergraduate and graduate degrees.

"My education has been transformational," she said. In that time, she’s become a CEW+ Scholar, won a U-M Hopwood Award and is working on a book. She’s served as a campus teaching assistant and as a research assistant for U-M’s Dinners for Democracy. Through campus’ WILL student organization, she’s worked with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Rep. Debbie Stabenow's office and other governmental leaders.

Kane said 58 months — almost five years — is also the amount of time she served in Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility.

“I’m a daughter, writer, student and friend. I’m also a felon. I'm very open about that. Prison gives you time to think and reflect about what you’ve done and the changes you want to make,” she said. “I applied to UM-Dearborn as soon as I got out and had access to a computer. I wanted to make a difference with the time I have. Earning a degree shows followthrough and commitment to goals — it’s given me opportunities to show that I’m dedicated to my transformation.”

But not everyone is given this chance. Kane said she knows several people — like women who have been convicted of a violent crime when defending themselves against acts of domestic violence or men who have served 30-plus years for crime committed as a teen — who served their time, but cannot better themselves through higher education upon re-entry because of college admissions restrictions, lack of access to grants, and not counting educational attainment earned in prisons.

“If the time has been served and the person is seen as being rehabilitated to the point that they are walking freely on the streets, why aren’t we allowing them to do more than get a poverty-level job or live off the government, which may put them back in a similar position as before?,” she said, noting that poverty is the No. 1 predictor for recidivism. “If someone has the drive to make changes in their life through education, they should be given the chance.”

UM-Dearborn recently held its first campus Policy Pitch Competition, where students had five minutes to promote a specific public policy of their choosing from local to international in scope.

Kane, an Integrated Studies major and in the 4+1 program, saw it as the chance to share the changes she hoped to see at the local level and beyond. Judges, which included Michigan League for Public Policy​​ Community Engagement Specialist Dwayne Barnes, for the competition chose the top three winners from nine finalists.

Kane won first place. Second place and third place went to Shouryan Nikam’s “Eliminate Michigan’s Subminimum Wage” and Hassan Ibrahim’s “Require Computer Science in Public High School,” respectively. Nikam is double majoring in Computer Science and Data Science; Ibrahim is a Cybersecurity and Information Assurance major.

“Being able to quickly and effectively convince others to follow your recommended course of action is a powerful and marketable skill,” said Economics Professor Emerita Patricia Smith, moderator of the competition. “Our students are active in advocacy and we wanted to give them a platform to share their proposed solutions to social issues.”

During her presentation, Kane said she considers herself lucky to have found such a supportive team through the campus’ Student Outreach and Academic Resources (SOAR) Program, which has the mission is to increase access to post-secondary education for non-traditional adult learners.

She’s also learned, through the experiences of others — including women she met in prison and have served their sentences — how difficult it can be for a felon to get access to a college education or other transitional opportunities. Kane said this is especially true for women, who are often left out of re-entry program initiatives.

“Public policy usually focuses on men’s prison re-entry because men’s prisons have more people than women’s prisons and policies are typically written to address the largest populations. But, like Abigail Adams wrote to her husband U.S. President John Adams, we can’t forget the women. I know he didn’t listen when creating the U.S. Constitution. But I hope we’ve learned from our nation’s past mistakes.”

Kane said she's learned from her mistakes. And she's out to change the narrative — and hopefully inform future U.S. college campus policies — when it comes to felon re-entry. She said the current national statistics show the five-year recidivism rate drops to zero with a master's degree.

Released in 2018, she’ll earn her master’s degree in 2023.

“It only takes one person to spark change. I think people are scared of us because people have a vision of Big Bertha or someone like that when they think of a stereotypical felon. But this is what a felon looks like,” Kane said, gesturing to herself holding maize and blue pom-poms and wearing a pullover sweater. “I came home motivated to change my life. Now that I’ve made strides in doing that through my experiences at UM-Dearborn, I know what’s possible. And I want to help others who are motivated to create positive change reach their educational goals too.” 

Article by Sarah Tuxbury