Sean Thompson El, 49, is a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago studying criminology, law and justice. That’s remarkable when you learn that Thompson El spent 27 years and nine months in prison. While incarcerated, he earned his associate’s degree, and after his release in 2010, he enrolled at Roosevelt. In 2013, he earned a bachelor of arts in criminal justice through the Adult Fast-Track Program. Here is a recent interview with Sean:
Q. How did you choose Roosevelt?
A. I paroled straight to Chicago, and I couldn’t find a job. I was just passing out resumes. I walked by the Gage Building one day and they had some type of exhibit going on, and I walked in there and got to talking to people. Before I knew it, I was enrolled. Roosevelt makes you feel welcome. No one has ever made judgment or been critical of me.
Q. Why did you choose criminal justice?
A. I had been a part of the (criminal) life for so long. I wanted to see how the other side thought, what’s really going on in the system. I don’t want any kid to grow up doing what I did. To fix the system, you’ve got to go through it.
Q. What was it like to be an older student and have been incarcerated before your college experience?
A. I’m always the oldest guy in the class. (laughs) It doesn’t bother me. The kids gave me a new perspective. They were so bright and they were so eager to learn. I loved my professors. They used me as an example in class sometimes, which was fine. I think I gave a unique spin to the criminal justice department.
Q. Was earning the degree difficult?
A. Nothing was really difficult. But it was sweet. The academic advisors always kept me on point, making sure I was OK. Before you knew it, I was graduating.
Q. What did graduation day feel like?
A. Oh man. I was speechless. Like, here I am. I can’t even describe it.
Q. What would you say to someone who things they have too many obstacles to pursue a degree, like age or background?
A. I encourage everyone I meet to go to Roosevelt and talk to the people about the adult programs. Go to the financial aid office and see if they can help you out. Education is the only way to better your condition. I meet older people who say, ‘I wish I could go back.’ You can! You’ve just got to do it. There was one lady in my class, 71 years old, she did it one class at a time. Anybody can do it. You can always better your condition and improve your skills.