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Meet Our Students: Alphonso Johnson

alphonso johnsonLike many adult learners at NLU, Alphonso Johnson experienced a moment of realization about the course of his life: He wanted to commit himself to living up to his full potential, as a worker, a student and a member of the community. There’s only one difference. He experienced this epiphany in jail.

“My last time in prison I told myself you’ve got to grow up,” he said. “You can’t blame anybody. You can’t justify or rationalize your behavior. You just have to grow up. You have to take the same effort and energy you used to create this criminal person and redirect that energy and effort into building who you are.”

A native of the old Cabrini-Green housing project on Chicago’s North Side, Alphonso was a self-described troubled teen, and like most teens, he said, he was searching for an identity. In a neighborhood where options were limited and criminals revered, he fell into gang activity and selling drugs, driven by a desire to fit in. Trouble followed.

Alphonso was first arrested at age 14, tried as an adult and served time till he turned 21. He did two more stints in prison, of 17 and 30 months a piece. His criminal life had indeed become like another person — an alter ego, he said — and he’d cultivated it for more than 20 years. Alphonso came to see that he must stop or he would end up in jail for the rest of his life or even dead — and that meant denying the false aspirations he’d grown up with.

“I realized that what I thought was normal because you see it so often every day, stepping outside of that, I found that it was actually abnormal,” he said.

Driven by this new sense of purpose, Alphonso began to pursue two tracks to put his life in order: work and school. For the latter, he was inspired by his sister, April, an NLU MBA graduate, and also his wife, Nesha, who will graduate in February with a degree in criminal justice from the University of Phoenix. Alphonso looked into what NLU could offer, initially enrolling in the Bachelor’s in Human Services program.

Former felons have limited work options, so Alphonso turned to Helen Roy, Career Readiness Advisor at NLU, for advice. She helped tune up his resume and encouraged him to do volunteer work to gain positive momentum and make connections. And it was while volunteering at St. Leonard’s Ministries teaching GED classes that he saw an ad for a rail-car servicer apprenticeship program with the Chicago Transit Authority.

The nine-month apprenticeship gave ex-offenders a second chance, joining the crews that clean CTA trains. Alphonso was interviewed and then accepted into the program. Recognizing it as a special opportunity, he committed himself to showing up and working hard on the evening shift. After just six months, Alphonso said he helped develop a better method for chemically cleaning graffiti from the trains, a time- and money-saving process now being implemented throughout the CTA.

This accomplishment gained Alphonso some acclaim, and in December he was asked by CTA leaders to help advocate for the ex-offender program by attending a press conference and telling his story. Ultimately the rail-car apprenticeship ended on the first of the year due to a conflict between the CTA and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308 over worker pay. But happily, the 65 current apprentices have since been moved into a similar bus cleaning program to save their jobs.

Alphonso became a full-time CTA employee at the end of December and avoided this transition. And he’s now finding he’s in demand. Recently he accepted an achievement award from Illinois Department of Corrections officials and state Rep. Camille Lilly. He’s been asked to speak to young people coming out of minimum security prisons. And he’s set to receive an award from the West Side Health Authority.

The attention can be overwhelming, Alphonso said, but he’s staying humble and grounded. He said his life is now full of the priceless things he could never have chasing a criminal lifestyle — a sense of pride and of peace. He’s part of a team that helps keep the city moving, and he no longer has to look over his shoulder in fear of the police or danger from the streets. His wife and his mother couldn’t be prouder, he said. It’s all a validation of that moment he experienced in prison and what he’s done since.

“I can’t make up the time I’ve lost,” he said. “I can only step up and take advantage of the time I have now to become a more responsible and positive, productive member of society”.

At NLU, Alphonso continues to pursue his studies, finding support from faculty and staff. He’s since changed his major to business administration and wants to start a community support program that will help at-risk young people find a path away from crime and violence. He hopes to get corporate investment to provide real economic alternatives for youth by offering jobs and encouraging education, whether its  college or trade school.

And he’ll continue to tell his story. Alphonso said it’s the least he can do for the second chance he’s been given.

“Any time, any place, anywhere that I’m able to share my story to inspire someone else, I’m there,” he said. “Because that’s another form of  restorative justice to me.”

21 comments on “Meet Our Students: Alphonso Johnson

  1. Thank You Mr.Donahue hopefully my story can be shared to motivate and inspire someone to change.I have learned that proper preparation prevents poor performance,but it takes dedication,determination and discipline.

  2. I am so proud of you and your accomplishments. You are the true epitome of “CHANGE.” It was a hard battle but you achieved!! You give hope to those who doubt it and you give assurance to people who struggle with having patience with time. I have seen your your transition and we walked with you, during the struggle but your wife was in the struggle with you. Its so touching and my heart is is filled with joy (tears) because you are finally arriving. Arriving in the direction you always had the potential to be. I could remember many years ago when you first came home from prison, Jeff said to me, “your brother is really smart and I was taken back by his conversation and intelligence.” I also remember when you tutored me when I was working on my Bachelors and I said “you should go back to school.” But you are here now, arriving in the divine order!! I’m just waiting on you to finish your degree so we could write a best seller! Love you big brother “I LOVE YOU”

    1. My math tutor i love you as a brother man getting through the rigourous math requirements needed to fulfill graduation requirements. Sincerely michael cox

    2. Hey sis tell red that I’m very proud of him myself cause he came a long way but it would be better if he would of marry me. Lol. Love you.But still got love for him.

      1. This is a disrespectful,inappropriate,childishcomment.I married the right woman and wouldn’t change that for nothing.

  3. That is great I pray that you are able to tell your success story around the world . So you could be an inspiration to young and old that think life has to stop after prison…

  4. Hey friend, I am very proud of you!!!…you are a leader and truly have a passion for helping others. Stay Strong and God Bless!!!

  5. Congratulations Alphonso. It was very uplifting reading your story and learning about your accomplishments. You are a great inspiration. I was surprised to hear you switched majors, but glad to hear of your future goal of opening an at-risk youth program. Best of luck!

  6. I am so proud of you Alphonso. God is so good Keep up the good work. I hope you will write a book real soon.

  7. Congrats Alphonso! So happy to hear how you’ve overcome your struggles and setbacks which is really motivating. Keep up the good work and just continue to keep moving forward. I hope all you guys from my math classes are doing well. I may start grad school at NLU this Spring. take care! :)

  8. Alphonso I have never met you but reading your story gives me chills. Bravo and congratulations!! It takes a strong man to look in the mirror and admit that changes need to be made and it all comes from within your soul and heart and wanting to be a respectful male to society. Education is they key to success and its never too late! Your spouse is a piece of gold weathering all that life brought upon both of you and for that hold her hand tight forever. Your mom must be so proud of her son…there is no greater gift for a parent but to see their children succeed and keep their faith in God! Mom deserves your graduation diploma as her gold metal for doing the best she could under the given circumstances!
    Keep up the good work and keep spreading the word that we all makes choices as to what and who we want to be in this life!!

  9. Wow Chrysoula,and thank you for your acknowledgement and words of encouragement especially as they pertain to me being a strong man,my wife and mom.I give all my glory to GOD for allowing me to go from being another negative urban statistic,to becoming a positive social exception,and believe me when I say I know how important my education is concerning this process of progress.I promise you as I have promised myself I will walk across that stage…Thank You again

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