Fall class speaker turns Second Chance into family’s first college degree
What's My Why?"One of my heroes is Frederick Douglass. ... Frederick Douglass realized that it was education that could actually bring him liberation, and so he pursued that. I was in bondage being in prison, and I juxtaposed his story somewhat to mine and found that education could actually bring me liberation as well because if you free the mind, everything else will follow."
Thomas Anderson grew up on the fringes, torn between his devoutly religious mother’s home and Baltimore’s seemingly irresistible streets.
When it came time to choose a side, he chose the latter and in return earned a life sentence in prison. His mother told him at least she knew where he was, even if he didn’t know who he was.
The potential she once saw in her son didn’t falter, though. In time, while serving time, Anderson would find a second chance at a new beginning. And it would lead him to a podium center stage at The Lyric performing arts center for The University of Baltimore’s fall commencement.
At 55, Anderson will represent the fall graduating class of 2023 as the student speaker.
“To know of all those years that my mother cried because of the bad things that I've done, for me to be able to walk across the stage and look up at my mother and see the tears in her eyes, I know it’s because of something that I did well,” he said.
When Anderson was in Jessup Correctional Institute, he found an opportunity to take college courses. They weren’t offered for credit, but he was sure education was key to his uncertain future.
Anderson was poised for new beginnings then when the University brought the Second Chance College Program to Jessup. It was an opportunity for incarcerated individuals to use Pell Grant funds to take courses for credits.
He had to work toward a reduced sentence before he could be eligible to enroll in the credited classes. When he earned that opportunity and started Second Chance, he was on his way toward a bachelor’s degree.
“When the University of Baltimore came in, it was heaven sent,” Anderson said.
Bolstering a Business Mind
Anderson represents the first generation in his family to receive an undergraduate degree. He could have earned his diploma sooner but had certain goals for himself and a passion to meet them.
UBalt’s Second Chance program guides students toward a degree in Human Services Administration. In his time at the University, Anderson also grew an interest in real estate and business.
After he was released from prison in 2019—having spent 22 and a half years there—he was adamant about continuing his education on campus.
He decided to switch academic programs to pursue a B.S. in Business Administration, with a specialization in Real Estate and Economic Development. The move set him back about a year, but felt it was an investment in his future.
“I spent most of my working life incarcerated, and I felt that the best way to be able to put myself in a position where I didn't have to choose between my medication or my food when I got older was to acquire real estate.”
He made the most of the extra time. Anderson applied for and joined the Pitch for $1 Million, an entrepreneurial-minded competition that gives its participants experience in real estate while creating an opportunity to earn funds for a venture that would revitalize a Baltimore community.
“Although I did not win, I came runner up and that was a proud accomplishment for me,” he said.
Mission to Pay It Forward
The lessons learned from both his program and the competition helped point Anderson toward the future he wants for himself. In the immediate future, he hopes to get a job so he can earn the money he needs to stay at UBalt to pursue a master’s degree in Nonprofit Management and Social Entrepreneurship.
He isn’t waiting though to jump-start his future. He started Hya Pearl Lawn Care Service to give himself a chance to help others while supporting himself.
Anderson plans to create a nonprofit that supports other incarcerated individuals with limited options while pursuing a better future after their release. He already applied for 501(c)3 status for the Manumission House.
The name is a tribute to manumission letters, a document that signaled a Black person once held as a slave was now free.
“The Manumission House will be for those college students who are presently incarcerated, that will be released from prison wanting to continue their education. It will be a conducive environment for them to learn to live and to grow. Because so many people, while starting their college education in prison, don't finish [after release] because they get caught up in the rat race.”
That was Anderson’s own experience after he left Jessup. He wanted to better himself and build from the second chance he was offered in prison, but his criminal past continued to haunt him.
The Manumission House would offer wraparound services that individuals like him could use, from mental health services to technology resources.
Anderson also wants to offer support through real estate. He’s been denied investment opportunities in certain pockets of the housing market because of his record. He wants to overcome that and then use the properties he acquires to support others working to change themselves for the better.
It isn’t lost on Anderson what and who got him to his current stage. Dr. Andrea Cantora came to Jessup Correctional believing there were individuals there that would rise to educational opportunities if they were available. Anderson was one of those individuals who benefited.
“Dr. Cantora is like a mother to all of us,” he said.
One of her assignments in Jessup was to imagine and write about a nonprofit business.
Anderson remembers his idea involved transitional housing—an inkling of what he would hope to one day build.
“If it was not for her implementing that assignment, I may not have received the seed that I needed to actually fall into my purpose. I am so grateful for her,” he said. “We, all the brothers that come out, are grateful for her making the sacrifices necessary to get us to where we need to be so that we can have a successful life.”