For some ex-gang members, hope beyond the street corner

College Bound Dorchester students waited to walk in for their ceremony where they will accept their HiSet certificates in pursuit of their college degrees.
College Bound Dorchester students waited to walk in for their ceremony where they will accept their HiSet certificates in pursuit of their college degrees.
Erin Clark for The Boston Globe

John Miguel Pereira was 12 when he started getting into trouble with the law. In the years after, the Dorchester native, now 34, became involved with drugs and gang violence.

He spent 12½ years in adult prisons, from age 17 to 33. Now, for the first time in his life, Pereira is able to call himself a “free man.”

“Coming out of prison to the real world, it’s kind of hard to keep up with it,” he said in an interview. “It’s like Double Dutch. You guys can all jump and Double Dutch, but I keep tripping on the rope.”

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Pereira was one of 66 students honored Thursday in a matriculation ceremony hosted by Boston Uncornered, an initiative that helps gang-involved young people work toward a college degree. The initiative was started by the education nonprofit College Bound Dorchester.

The annual ceremony honored students who have received their GED through the nonprofit, 44 of whom will be matriculating to college in the fall.

“Rather than doing a graduation ceremony, what we wanted to celebrate and wanted them to celebrate was their path to college,” said Mark Culliton chief executive of College Bound Dorchester. “It’s a chance for many of these students for the first time to have their family come and recognize them for their . . . perserverance to get to that point.”

College Bound Dorchester students from left Jamayah Few, Gena Figuera, Kieara Beaman and Tu-Merrick took a selfie.
College Bound Dorchester students from left Jamayah Few, Gena Figuera, Kieara Beaman and Tu-Merrick took a selfie.
Erin Clark for The Boston Globe

Pereira is one of a few dozen Boston Uncornered students who are being paid a weekly stipend to pursue a college degree. He enrolled in his first course at Roxbury Community College earlier this summer and plans to continue there this fall.

Since its inception 2½ years ago, Boston Uncornered has matriculated 72 percent of its students. In comparison, less than 1 percent of gang-involved youth in the country go to college.

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Culliton said the initiative’s greater goal is to use education to stem violence in communities that are plagued by poverty and gangs. It works to address those issues by recruiting and training former gang members as mentors, dubbed college readiness advisers. These advisers then work with students to help them prepare for secondary education, as well as provide everyday emotional and social support.

Kenny Schoonmaker, who advises 17 Boston Uncornered students, said he works with his students seven days a week, which can involve going to court hearings, referring them to counselors for mental health issues, or supporting them as someone who has gone through similar hardships.

Tu-Merrick Brown (left) laughed with his friends.
Tu-Merrick Brown (left) laughed with his friends.
Erin Clark for The Boston Globe

“I’m the same as my students. . . . I grew up like any inner-city young man,” Schoonmaker said. “If someone told me that they were getting shot at yesterday and they don’t feel like coming outside today, then I understand that.”

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The advisers typically work with their students until they’ve received their first degree, whether that’s a certificate or a diploma from a two-year or four-year college, Schoonmaker said.

“I work with them beyond that,” Schoonmaker said. “Some of my guys get locked up and I’m still reaching out; I’m still speaking to family members. To me it’s not really a job because that’s what I would do if I wasn’t working. I’d still be helping my people out.”

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Pereira said that without College Bound Dorchester’s program, he very likely might have ended up back in prison or dead.

“These guys are like my brothers now, keeping me on a positive track” he said. “I’ve been out of prison, and my life is actually going in the right direction.’’

And I was a full-fledged gang member.”

Culliton acknowledged it can be difficult for some people to wrap their heads around the idea of paying former criminals and gang-involved young people to go to school.

“People love to think of these guys as bad guys or not worth it,” he said. “As much as anything, this initiative will be successful when people start to see the power and potential for good within these young people and believe in their desire to do that.

“Our young people are responsible for their choices, but not for their options.”

Tu-Merrick Brown (left) and Erica Gilbert took photos before walking to accept their HiSet certificates in pursuit of their college degrees.
Tu-Merrick Brown (left) and Erica Gilbert took photos before walking to accept their HiSet certificates in pursuit of their college degrees.
Erin Clark for The Boston Globe