Why a criminal history shouldn't stop students from getting their life back on track.

Everyone deserves a fair shot at getting on the right track.

Keri Blakinger is a felon. She's also an Ivy League graduate.

After graduating from Cornell University in 2014, Blakinger found a good job and moved on with her life. But she watched too many women she spent time with behind bars — women who were equally motivated to put their pasts behind them — struggle to find their footing after prison.

"I was incredibly lucky," Blakinger, who was convicted of a drug-related crime in 2010, wrote in The Washington Post last year.


Photo by Jay Paul/Getty Images.

Right now, receiving a diploma — a key factor that helped Blakinger get on the right track — is out of reach for many people with criminal histories.

While colleges don't outright bar people with criminal backgrounds from applying, it's certainly a weighted consideration during the admissions process. What's more, if you're an ex-con, simply knowing you have to disclose your criminal history on the application might deter you from even applying (because, what's the point if you know it'll greatly weaken your chances?).

Fortunately, that tide seems to be changing for the better.

On June 10, 2016, the White House asked U.S. colleges and universities to stop considering an applicant's criminal history during the admissions process.

"This is about persuading institutions to do the right thing with respect to how they admit their students," Secretary of Education John King told The Atlantic. “This effort is about removing arbitrary obstacles.”

Photo by Olivier Douliery, Pool/Getty Images.

The announcement is part of the White House's Fair Chance Pledge — an effort to encourage both businesses and higher ed institutions to consider retooling their hiring practices and to press student admissions to give people with criminal histories a chance at bettering their lives.

The pledge makes sense for people like Blakinger. Not only has past research suggested there's no empirical evidence suggesting screening students for criminal histories makes campuses safer, but doing so also can actually exacerbate existing problems, like grappling with our massive prison population — a group that's disproportionately people of color.

The White House's new effort is a big win in more ways than one.

The decision not to consider criminal histories — a move several schools, including Columbia University, Arizona State University, and Blakinger's alma mater, Cornell, have already enacted — benefits marginalized groups and can help keep people out of prison.

Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images.

Seeing as our prison population is disproportionately nonwhite, allowing more former inmates to access education after serving their sentences (an effort that has been known to curb recidivism) would mean more black and Hispanic Americans choosing school, rather than relapsing into criminal behavior.

There's already been significant progress on this front too. Earlier this year, the Department of Education worked with the creators of the "Common App" — a standardized college application used by about 700 schools across the country — to change the wording of the question that asks applicants about their criminal history.

Considering that question often keeps many people from applying, the tweak is expected to encourage more students with criminal backgrounds to take the leap and go to school.

Obama hasn't just talked the talk on this issue, either — last November, he walked the walk when it comes to the federal government's hiring practices.

The president issued an executive order that ended the requirement of applicants to federal positions to disclose if they've been convicted of a crime. The order essentially "banned the box" that ex-cons would be forced to "check" on applications revealing their criminal history.

"We can't dismiss people out of hand simply because of a mistake they made in the past," Obama said in a speech addressing the order.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

To Blakinger, who's used her platform to fight for change, giving people like her a second chance is a no-brainer.

"If we want to lower the crime rate, we need to make education accessible to former inmates," she wrote. "Banning the box on college applications not only gives people a chance to rehabilitate their lives, it also makes our communities safer."

Blakinger shouldn't be one of the "lucky" ones: Everyone deserves a fair shot at getting on the right track.

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Courtesy of Macy's

In many ways, 18-year-old Idaho native, Hank Cazier, is like any other teenager you've met. He loves chocolate, pop music, and playing games with his family. He has lofty dreams of modeling for a major clothing company one day. But one thing that sets him apart may also jeopardize his future is his recent battle against a brain tumor.

Cazier was diagnosed in 2015. When he had surgery to remove the tumor, he received trauma to his brain and lost some of his motor functionality. He's been in physical, occupational, and speech therapy ever since. The experience impacted Cazier's confidence and self-esteem, so he's been looking for a way to build himself back up again.

"I wanted to do something that helped me look forward to the future," he says.

Enter Make-A-Wish, a nonprofit organization that grants wishes for children battling critical illnesses, providing them a chance to make the impossible possible. The organization partnered with Macy's to raise awareness and help make those wishes a reality. The hope is that the "wish effect" will improve their quality of life and empower them with the strength they need to overcome these illnesses and look towards the future. That was a particularly big deal for Cazier, who had been feeling like so many of his wishes weren't going to be possible because of his critical illness.

"In the beginning, it was hard to accept that it would be improbable for me to accomplish my previous goals because my illness took away so many of my physical abilities," says Cazier. His wish of becoming a model also seemed out of reach.

But Macy's and Make-A-Wish didn't see it like that. Once they learned about Cazier's wish, they knew he had to make it come true by inviting him to be part of the magical Macy's holiday shoot in New York.

Courtesy of Macy's

Make-A-Wish can't fulfill children's wishes without the generosity of donors and partners like Macy's. In fact, since 2003, Macy's has given more than $122 million to Make-A-Wish and impacted the lives of more than 2.9 million people.

Cazier's wish experience was beyond what he could've imagined, and it filled him with so much joy and confidence. "It is like waking up and discovering that you have super powers. It feels amazing!" he exclaims.

One of the best parts about the day for him was the kindness everyone who helped make it happen showed him.

"The employees of Macy's and Make-A-Wish made me feel welcome, warm, and cared for," he says. "I am truly grateful that even though they were busy doing their jobs, they were able to show kindness and compassion towards me in all of the little details."

He also got to spend part of the shoot outdoors, which, as someone who loves climbing, hiking, and scuba-diving but has trouble doing those activities now, was very welcome.

Courtesy of Macy's

Overall, Cazier feels he grew a lot during his modeling wish and is now emboldened to work towards a better quality of life. "I want to acquire skills that help me continue to improve in these circumstances," he says.

You can change the lives of more kids like Cazier just by writing a letter to Santa and dropping it in the big red letterbox at Macy's (you can also write and submit one online). For every letter received before Dec. 24, 2019, Macy's will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to $1 million. By writing a letter to Santa, you can help a child replace fear with confidence, sadness with joy, and anxiety with hope.

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