Dirk Van Velzen, the Prison Scholar Fund’s CEO, was released from prison on May 7th, 2015. He had been incarcerated since 1999 for a series of commercial burglaries.
When Dirk arrived in prison, he quickly realized that the main ways to spend one’s time in prison were watching TV, doing push-ups, and playing pinochle. However, you can choose how to spend your time–something you’ve got plenty of. Incarceration, as strange as it sounds, offers a unique opportunity to focus on, and build, a new future. That’s exactly what Dirk did.
Dirk applied for the Federal Pell Grant, which is a federal needs-based financial aid program for low-income Americans, of which prisoners would certainly qualify. Then he discovered that Pell Grants were discontinued by Congress in 1994 in the heyday of the war on drugs. It’s hard to fathom why Congress would eliminate programs that are designed to change behavior for the better by increasing labor-market readiness.
Seeking other support, Dirk wrote 300 letters to churches seeking tuition support without success — he only received a single “No,” but was otherwise ignored. Likewise, 300 letters dispatched to charities and businesses were fruitless.
Luckily, Dirk was able to reconnect with his father, Ted, who stepped in to cover his college costs in 2001. He enrolled at Penn State through distance education, receiving an A.S. in Business Administration and a B.S. in Organizational Leadership, and earning a host of awards, including the President’s Freshman Award, the President Sparks Award, and the Evan Pugh Scholar Award by graduating in the upper 1/2 of one percent of his class. Additionally, Dirk was inducted into the Honor Societies of Phi Kappa Phi and Alpha Sigma Lambda.
Shortly after Dirk’s release from prison, he received a certificate in Nonprofit Management from the University of Washington, won first place in the Social Venture Partners Fast Pitch business plan competition, and earned a coveted slot in the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Executive Program in Social Entrepreneurship.
Dirk had discovered over the course of his journey that many other prisoners would walk a similar path if educational opportunity were available. Prison is full of hustlers: drug dealers, purveyors of stolen goods, con artists, etc. These people understand business: the cost of goods sold, finance, marketing, human resources, and customer acquisition and retention. With a formal business education and ethical introspection, many of those incarcerated could easily turn their self-taught skills into highly productive careers.
The idea of the Prison Scholar Fund was born around 2002, and Dirk explored funding strategies—marketing calendars produced from inmate artwork, for instance, to support operations. Although not all strategies worked, the Prison Scholar Fund received IRS 501(c)(3) recognition in 2006.
Dirk learned how to write grants, and enjoyed an early success with support from the Annenberg and Bannerman Foundations. Over the next few years, he raised almost $60,000 and awarded 191 scholarships to inmates who were inspired to change their lives through education.
With his father’s assistance for the things he couldn’t do from behind bars (like open bank accounts and respond to email), Dirk did all of this from prison. Dirk and his father, Ted, were awarded the President’s Volunteer Service Award from President Barack Obama for their tireless work with the PSF.
The PSF has achieved amazing success from prison, validated its operations with an audit from Watson & McDonnell, PLLC (also from prison), and is positioning itself to make an even broader impact. It is scaling up, opening access to college education for all incarcerated students in America.
Recently, Dirk was welcomed into musician John Legend’s “Unlocked Futures,” accelerator, in partnership with New Profit Foundation and Bank of America. Became a JustLeadershipUSA Fellow, Leading with Conviction Fellow. And was invited into the American Enterprise Institute’s Leadership Network, to help inform national policy.
Dirk was fortunate when his father paid his tuition, but most inmates are not so lucky. Dirk believes that education should not be limited to just the “lucky,” but be available to all inmates so that they can exit prison with the skills to succeed. And Dirk’s father, Ted, the PSF’s co-founder couldn’t be happier to be a “Harvard Dad” with his son completing a Nonprofit Leadership program at the Harvard Kennedy School. The PSF is poised to make his vision a reality.