From GED to PhD

Written by Eric Burnham

Personal growth, to me, means becoming the person I was designed to be. I’m not too sure where the balance is found between nature and nurture in the formation of my spirit as a unique human being. I do know, however, that I’m just one incarcerated man trying to overcome my past mistakes and make a positive impact on this crazy world. I kind of think that’s what life is all about: taking the bad and using it for good. Eric Burnham #12729124 Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution 2500 Westgate Pendleton OR 97801

January 5, 2022

Photo by Taha Mazandarani on Unsplash

I have been incarcerated for over twenty years now, a lifetime for many. When I was 21-years-old, I took a man’s life in a fight that I started. Yet, while I unquestionably deserve to be in prison, I never wanted to be a man who belongs here, and I  have worked hard to never be. It took some time for the momentum of positive energy and self-discipline to become transformative, but I have not wasted my days. On December 10, 2021 I graduated with a PhD in Psychology and Counseling, but my journey goes beyond academics.

I arrived at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution an emotionally underdeveloped 21-year-old with little education. I didn’t even have a GED, and I was profoundly self-centered and insecure. For  years I used alcohol, drugs, and lies to cover my shame and conceal my psychosocial dysfunction, but when I arrived here and the heavy metal door shut behind me… and on my life, I was left with nothing but the truth of who I was and what I’d done. I grieved over the loss of my life–as any narcissist would, but deep down, I knew I had hurt so many people, one of whom would never go home. I grieved for him, too, and I knew I must do something different. I could not stay who I was.

Not much real change happened in the first couple years of my incarceration. The system is structured far more around order and security than rehabilitation, and I didn’t know how to change myself or be anything other than what I had always been. Consequently, it took time for me to learn how to be different, and it wasn’t easy.

A transformational moment in my life came while I was in disciplinary segregation after a fight. I had what I believe to be a spiritual experience, which I describe in an earlier blog post on this platform, and it redirected the focus of my life–at that point, although I did not yet know what my future held, I knew there was something more for me. My life was not forfeit. I knew there was a purpose for me that I had to pursue.

I prayed often after I was released back into general population. Nothing too pious or formal, but a sort of running commentary with God. I never  heard an audible response, but  whenever I would pray about direction or ask for guidance, I always felt a one-word response in my spirit: Learn. That is all I was given. So… I pursued it with all of me, leading to significant educational achievement.

I earned my GED in 2003, and in early 2008 I was hired as a tutor in the Education Department, a job I still hold today. Through a career development site available in the computer lab, I found a university that offered distance learning for the incarcerated, and I contacted them.

My mother had recently received some money, and she asked me if I needed anything. I could have asked for trivial, comfort-oriented things, but I told her about the educational opportunity I had found, and she was on board. She paid for my entire education, from the first course in my associate degree program to the final practicum for my doctoral program. I will never be able to adequately express my gratitude, for she very likely saved my life.

I use the metaphor of a weed often — I look back on my young life, and I see that I was a weed. I negatively affected all the good around me, and I was ultimately removed because my impact on those around me was universally ugly. I brought nothing of worth to anyone, and when I realized this, I simply had no desire to live because I knew I was a burden to everyone, especially those who love me. I just didn’t want to keep going if I could not be any better than I was. It was during this low period that these educational opportunities came into my life.

The rest is really history from an academic standpoint. I earned an Associate of Arts degree in 2013, a Bachelor of Arts in Counseling in 2015, graduating Summa Cum Laude with a 3.98 GPA. I finished my Master’s of Counseling degree program in 2017, and I finally finished my educational journey in 2021, completing my PhD program. Moreover, I have accumulated over 350 additional CEU credits toward earning my certification in alcohol and drug counseling. I have everything I need for my license except the 4000 hours of clinical counseling, which I cannot get in here. I am immediately employable in my field, however.

The best lessons I have learned go beyond academic achievement. I have learned what it means to know who I am, to know my purpose, and to find meaning in the pain of my own mistakes. I have learned that I don’t need to wear a mask to hide my flaws or to use drugs and alcohol to numb my emotional struggles. I have learned self-awareness, empathy for others, and acceptance of my weaknesses. I don’t need to force others to view me the way I want them to, and I don’t need to judge others in order to feel better about being me. In my journey from GED to PhD, I have learned how to be authentically me, and there is no greater gift that God could give me.

I have made so many mistakes in my life and hurt so many people, and although my violence was over 20 years ago, it remains powerfully salient for me — it is a motivating factor in my life. I don’t want to hurt anyone ever again or give space to or be a channel for darkness in the world. I want to be conduit for light and contribute significantly to the good in the world by using my faith in God, my education in counseling and psychology, and my experiences of failure, incarceration, and personal development to benefit others, especially those wrestling with issues of identity and addiction to harmful substances or behaviors.

I look forward to the next step in my journey of becoming all I was designed to be, and I am so grateful to everyone who has helped me along the way, my friends and family, my mother, and the Blue Mountain Community College instructors for whom I work have been life-changing influences in my life. I simply could not be where I am today without all of them — I am endlessly grateful. I have said it before: although I ended up in prison as a result of my own self-centeredness, prison is not the end of my story.

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