BY Dollita Okine, 5:30pm July 03, 2024,

Dad goes from inmate to the Ivy League: ‘I just really wanted to do better by my child’

Master’s student Thomas Jones in the ILR School's Catherwood Library. Photo credit: Jason Koski/Cornell University

After serving two prison terms, Thomas T. Jones recently triumphed against all odds and earned a master’s degree from Cornell University. Having lost friends to gun violence, he was raised in a fearful and anxious environment and eventually got a gun for himself.

At the age of 20, he was found guilty of unlawfully possessing a handgun and sentenced to three years in prison. As he grew up, he was conditioned to assume that he would do time at some point in his life, pointing out that this wasn’t an unusual experience given that many of his friends were already in the juvenile justice system or serving time.

He told Essence, “The most impossible places and circumstances prepared me for some of the most powerful doors.” 

The devoted father said he was resolved to give his son a better life when he was born in 2012. However, Jones was found guilty a second time of possessing an illegal firearm and given a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence after going to a party one night.

He decided to change his life for the better after his son, who was four years old, visited him in prison in 2016. In an interview with The Cornell Chronicle, he said, “I’ll never forget this – he looked up at me and said, I want to go with you. I had to explain to him that I’m in prison. This is where people go when they don’t follow the rules. As he was leaving, he kept looking back, kept saying those words, ‘I want to come with you.’ It just tore my heart to pieces, and I was like, this can’t be my reality. That was my defining moment.”

“I just really wanted to do better by my child and as a person overall…I told myself that I had five years to build myself back up, and I didn’t care if I didn’t sleep or eat. I had to make up for lost time,” he added.

With the help of the New Jersey Scholarship and the Transformative Education in Prisons program, Jones earned his associate’s degree in 2021 while in a halfway house.

Following his release, he worked a full-time job and attended night studies at Rutgers University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2022. To help non-traditional workers overcome the challenges he faced as a frontline employee, he got admitted to Cornell University’s Master of Industrial and Labor Relations program in 2022.

Thirty-four of his family members traveled from all over the United States to watch Jones walk the stage and receive his Master’s in Industrial and Labor Relations in May this year.

Jones hopes to cultivate more inclusiveness in the workplace through DEI work with the school’s graduate student association. 

Aside from making the workplace more hospitable to people of different backgrounds, he wants to increase employment and leadership opportunities for minorities and anyone facing barriers to employment.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: July 3, 2024

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