From GED to PhD

From GED to PhD

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.

Why Wait

Why Wait

Being in prison for now fifteen years, it’s pretty obvious that I have spent countless hours, days, and nights waiting: waiting for what will be my eventual release. On a daily basis, I’m forced — well, conditioned is more accurate — to wait for more mundane things like chow, yard, line movement (when inmates are given five minutes to come and go from their cells to a designated area), visits, etc. In fact, when I think about it, even prior to prison I spent much of my life waiting: waiting for my next paycheck, waiting for my lunch break, waiting to get off work, waiting for my vacation. It’s seemingly a natural human instinct to wait. But why? Why do we accept this bleak, uneventful reality? And perhaps more importantly, what are we giving up in the meantime?

When I came to prison fifteen years ago, I could not fathom how I was going to bring a semblance of normalcy to this dreaded situation. The only thing that actually kept me from going insane was day dreaming about my eventual release, albeit nearly two decades later. However, at some point I had to come to terms with my circumstance, accept the harsh reality I was going to be here, and begin to brainstorm how I was going to make my days meaningful — if I could.

Once I’d reached this point, I discovered something: I can make this as hard or as “easy” as I want it to be; I opted for the latter, and in doing so I began to pour all my energy into my evolution — my character overhaul, purpose-driven living, educational goals, being of service to those around me.

I focused on my character flaws (impatience, selfishness, manipulation) and began to work on each one, asking others around me to hold me accountable when they saw me exhibiting them. I approached every day with the attitude of improving myself, in turn making myself better able to help others – particularly younger inmates who may have looked up to me for how I conducted myself in prison. This gave me a purpose even in a place as dark as this. I tutored inmates of all ages and backgrounds who were working on their GEDs and other curricula because, thankfully, I was suited to do so having gotten my own GED while incarcerated. I then delved into my own educational endeavors by pursuing a college education. I didn’t know how it would turn out, where it would lead, but it didn’t matter because all that mattered was, I was improving myself personally and increasing my chances of employability when released. All of these things enabled me to keep my mind off the time – waiting – and on bettering myself on a daily basis, bettering those around me, bringing purpose and meaning to my life in a way that I’d never experienced prior to prison.

In eager anticipation of things, we often say we “can’t wait” for them to arrive. We spend each day leading up to a particular day or event in deep contemplation about it, excitement building at the mere thought of it. This should particularly resonate with those of you whose favorite holiday is Christmas. Though I’d never be the one to tell you that you should feel guilty for waiting in eager anticipation for this sacred, beloved holiday to arrive, I do caution you to not let it — or any other day or event you look forward to — prevent you from making the most of the day before you; to not lose sight of the gift of the present and the vast opportunities it yields — ones that will only be realized and seized if we’re looking for them, not if we are merely waiting for something else to arrive.

As I sit here and write, I only have two and half years left on my sentence. I have earned a master’s degree in psychology, published two books, gotten certified as a recovery mentor and expect to be state certified as a substance abuse counselor by year’s end. I have helped countless men in their own educational pursuits, addiction recovery efforts, and personal goals. I have co-facilitated the DUI victim impact panels offered here, telling my own story twice a year. My life has taken on a quality and immeasurable purpose that I could not have even imagined possible fifteen years ago when this journey began; this is directly attributable to the fact that I refused to wait: to wait for my life to pass me by in eager anticipation for a date on the calendar that would eventually come on its own.

Finding My Purpose In Prison

We’re pleased to introduce a new contributor to our blog, Eric Burnham.

My name is Eric Shawn Burnham. I was born April 21, 1979 in Las Vegas, Nevada, but I grew up in grad-speech-picOregon and California mostly. I came to prison in 2001, and I’ve been at EOCI ever since. 

When I was 21-years-old, I took another man’s life while intoxicated, and I was given a 25-to-life sentence in prison. I deeply regret the actions of my youth, and I’m ashamed of the lifestyle I was living that led to the death of another human being at my hand. But as much as I want to, I cannot change the past. I can use it to shape my future, however.

In 2003 I earned my G.E.D., and in September 2015 I earned a Bachelor of Arts in Counseling, graduating Summa Cum Laude (3.98 GPA). By mid-2017 I will have earned my Master’s degree in Counseling. In addition, I’m accumulating CEUs (Continued Education Units) in order to meet the requirements for state certification as an alcohol & drug counselor. (I’ll still need 4000 hrs. of clinically-supervised counseling after I’m released.) My education is important to me because I’m dedicated to helping young people avoid making the same mistakes I made.

I work as a tutor in the G.E.D. program here at the prison, and I love my job. It doesn’t pay well, but it gives me the opportunity to help young people and practice my skills.

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.


Finding My Purpose in Prison by Eric Burnham

Can the prison experience be good? Inmates are crammed into small cells or overcrowded dorms like sardines, surrounded by some of the most difficult personalities on the planet, and ordered around by self-righteous, often power hungry and abusive authority figures. The cramped living quarters are physically uncomfortable. The lack of privacy is emotionally exhausting, and the empty nature of prison friendships is socially unfulfilling. The boredom is mind-numbing. The loneliness can be crushing, and the inflexible power structure imbeds anger into one’s personality. The incarcerated person is completely isolated from loved ones — few things hurt more than knowing your friends and family have moved on without you. Perhaps the hardest pill to swallow, however, is knowing this is all self-inflicted. After all, if you admit it’s your own fault, you are then responsible.

There is no escaping the fact that I’m responsible for an incredible amount of devastation. I’ve brought suffering to my victim, my family, and myself; and I cannot move forward with my life until I acknowledge that. But when I finally realize I am the problem, something miraculous happens: I also realize I can do something about the problem. I find purpose. The time I’m serving in prison becomes an opportunity to change how I view the world, how I treat others, and how I meet my needs. However, I cannot accomplish that on my own. I need God’s help. But if I’m committed to learning how to become a better man, God has promised to help. “And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” (Rom. 8:28).

God is interested in transforming me into an instrument of light, and He will use the difficult experiences of incarceration to bring about changes in me that I cannot completely understand. But I’ve got to do my part. I’ve got to live like I believe it. How I view my situation will determine how I live while I’m here. I am not the victim. The selfishness of my past put me here. But if the selfish deeds of my past led to my present incarceration, what might my present positive actions lead to in the future… if I give my present to Him… on purpose?

Letters From Prison: Be On Purpose

SBahrami  be on purpose

Our friend Shawn is serving his 21st year in a Texas prison for a crime he did not commit. Shawn is one of my personal adoptees, and writes to me often. We also speak on the phone a few times a month. His letters, like the one below, always begin with several motivational quotes. Of all the people who write to us, Shawn is one of the most positive and inspiring. You can read more about Shawn on his website, FREEShawnAli.com.

September 30, 2015

“Nothing in life can take the place of knowing your purpose. If you don’t try to discover your purpose, you’re likely to spend your life doing the wrong things.” -John C. Maxwell

“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life. Everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he/she cannot be replaced, nor can his/her life be repeated. Thus everyone’s task is as unique as his/her specific opportunity to implement it.” -Viktor Frankl

Good morning. It’s early. I was dreaming again, woke up wide awake and couldn’t go back to sleep. From the moment I woke up, I felt so alive and determined, I could literally feel my mind and spirit inching closer to my destiny. I woke up this morning feeling peace and liberty inside because I know my purpose, and it excites and motivates me to know I’m one day closer to fulfilling the physical manifestations of my purpose. But for now, I have to live for today, Melissa, the little things I do today to prepare and train myself matter, and count towards fulfilling the full potential of my purpose.

I couldn’t stop the tears this morning, they kept falling and flowing as if they were watering my positive mental visualizations and dreams that I reflected on as I thought about my purpose. It didn’t surprise me, when I opened up my Leadership Devotional, that today’s reading was titled “Be On Purpose,” and it’s where today’s quotes came from. More tears. Why? Because if I never got locked up on this case, if I was never wrongfully convicted, there is a good chance I could have traveled through this fast life without discovering my purpose. No God, please let me get locked up, use man’s wrongdoing and injustice to bring about greatness in my life. I can miss my physical freedom for 21 years, but I cannot miss my lifetime without discovering my purpose.

Then I read my three pages of goals and visions for my life out loud, and I could feel the universe and God moving the chess pieces of my life to align me in the best position to realize my purpose. People. Events. Circumstances. Experiences. Connections. Contacts. I can feel the unseen chess pieces moving. Then I hit my concrete floor in the push-up position, but I only did one good push-up. Why? for the psychological effect (it makes my mind stronger). Yesterday, I did 1,200 push-ups for the physical effect (which made my body stronger). More tears. I’m stronger today than I was yesterday – physically and mentally – and though I’m caged in this tiny cell, I find and feel true freedom in knowing and pursuing my purpose.

Give me a hug, Melissa, mmm-mmm! We know our purposes in life, Melissa. Yes, it took your brother getting wrongfully convicted to ‘accidentally’ discover your purpose, and it took my wrongful conviction to ‘accidentally’ discover my purpose, but bad things and tragedies happening in life are inevitable, so we are so blessed that our tragedies weren’t for nothing because our pain propelled us to discover our purposes.

I also received a new blog idea this morning for your site – Why You Should Adopt an Inmate – because there are many people out there who will find purpose in life when they visit your site and adopt an inmate. Have a good day, Melissa, and keep pursuing your purpose.

Feeling inspired,

Shawn Ali