By Jon Wollenhaupt, President, Go Launch Marketing
Emmanuel Ezenwa, or “EZ” as his students affectionately call him, is an adjunct professor in the Technical Education department at American River College. In addition to teaching at the college he teaches vocational welding classes to inmates at California’s historic Folsom State Prison. Back in 2012, I interviewed him as a part of a year-long communications project I was working on for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that was funded by the California Community College system. During this time, I documented the successes of rehabilitative programs that were preparing offenders to reintegrate into society. The articles I wrote, the photographs I took and the videos I helped produce were used to communicate rehabilitative success stories and program information to offenders throughout the statewide prison system. The programs I documented and observed included vocational training, GED education, substance abuse programs, cognitive behavioral therapy and other evidence-based programs.
EZ, originally from Nigeria, is a remarkable, soft-spoken man who has been teaching welding to offenders for over 24 years. His dedication to his students is unwavering. Over the many years he has taught at Folsom State Prison he has turned down several promotions and pay grade advancements, because, as EZ will tell you, his real work is accomplished on the shop floor, mentoring men who have never been given encouragement, guidance or a chance to make something of their lives.
EZ dedicates each day to one purpose: changing the lives of offenders and giving them a second chance. During one interview, EZ described how some of his students begin to transform under this mentorship:
“Most of the time when new students start the program and enter my shop they feel out of their element. They come into class feeling very tentative and uncertain. This is because in class they are away from the rigid behavioral codes and intense peer pressure that comes with prison life. Many new students are afraid that others will discover they don’t understand the lesson or have difficulty reading. And then slowly, over time, they start to get comfortable with the subject matter and the shop equipment. They begin to develop skills and knowledge. They become familiar with other students and develop bonds. They realize they can ask other students for help and they will give it to them. And then they begin to work hard, with dedication. The very same guys who were tentative in the beginning start to help and teach other students. You can see them begin to blossom and thrive. And eventually, after two years or more of study and hard work, the day comes when they pass the first welding certification exam. And let me tell you, the moment when I hand them that paper can be amazing. I’ve seen some of the most hard-core guys look at that certificate and then run outside the shop and cry.”
EZ will tell you that his students are often hard-core types — guys who have never received any positive encouragement or guidance. Many grew up without parental supervision or support and had little chance to make something of their lives. But in his welding classes they find out they can do more and be more than they ever thought possible. And if EZ has anything to say about it, his students will always know they are more than their past and that a better future is calling to them.
NOTE: For years, I thought this article and the photos of EZ and his students at Folsom Prison were lost in digital oblivion (hard drive crash). Thank goodness they were retrieved by some local tech wizards. I am very pleased—though rather late—to be able to share this story. In the hope of getting an update on EZ, I reached out to him via email at American River College where I am told he still teaches. I will post updated information as soon as it is received.
Jon Wollenhaupt is a Sacramento-based marketing consultant and photographer. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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