A Summer Away From Home

“Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”

I stared at the inmates crowding the courtyard in front of me and began to wonder what I was doing in a prison. My visit was for three weeks during which I was tasked with helping teach computer code to inmates in San Francisco’s San Quentin State Prison. While some might consider this internship unique or see the opportunity as a potentially transformative experience, I felt indifferent about it — immensely different.

Before I walked through those prison gates, I had heard countless people gush about the impact that volunteering had on them and how it had changed their lives for the better, yet I never saw it that way. I never felt as if I was making a real difference. With help from prison guards perched above me, I made my way into a decrepit brick building and greeted the program supervisor. We reviewed my role and as he left the room to retrieve something for me, I peered into the classroom full of inmates just across the hall. Wearing bright blue jumpsuits, the inmates displayed a variety of tattoos that in many cases ran along their necks and faces. I stuck out like a sore thumb. “Here’s a whistle to use if anything goes wrong,” the supervisor said as he re-entered the room, managing to erase what little comfort I had preserved.

Armed with only a whistle and a disturbing feeling of ambivalence about helping the inmates, I began the internship. For the next three weeks, I followed the same routine each day. Before entering the classroom, I would report to the prison at 7:30 in the morning and check my computer for any outstanding questions the inmates had left me from the previous day. Then I would work with the inmates until 3:00 p.m. From the moment I walked into the classroom each morning until I left, I fielded a seemingly endless stream of questions and requests from the inmates. It was glorious. With each question came a new challenge I found myself eager to accept. As a team, the inmates and I faced each obstacle that the code presented, combining our expertise to tackle even the most difficult problems.

Within a matter of days, I recognized that my experience at San Quentin was unmistakably different from any other community service I had taken part in. Seeing the inmates improve their understanding of code first-hand gave me the feeling that had been absent for so long in my prior community service: the feeling of making a difference. Today, I view my three weeks at San Quentin as crucial in the development of my character. My understanding of the importance of giving back to others can be credited solely to the inmates inside that classroom. Thanks to them, the internship proved to be incredibly fulfilling, and my community service finally felt like service to a community.

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