Renegade Struggles: James Tompkins


Melissa Puryear

James Tompkins smiles for a photo after talking about his struggles as a student at BC.

Melisa Puryear, Reporter

“Struggle, I think, is a part of success,” said James Tompkins, 34, as he opened up about his past year at Bakersfield College, and what he defines as “being a returning citizen, being previously incarcerated.”

Tompkins knows the struggle of incarceration and the fear of others judging him for having been to prison, but he says he is like any other student on campus.

On his first day a year ago, he didn’t feel that way.

When he arrived, he had no idea where to go, who to talk to about his educational plans, or how to get started. He didn’t feel like “any other student” on campus while walking through the halls to his classes, or sitting amongst other students in the campus environment.

What awaited him here on the outside, during his first tentative steps to negotiating the road to education and success, was a lack of a network of students like himself, or at the time, a support system in place at BC or amongst counselors, that helped students who were previously incarcerated.

He didn’t feel that anyone understood what it was like to be in his shoes or who were equally passionate about success and leadership through education and therefore he felt alone.

“There is a fear of judgement and a fear of just being kind of ostracized, when people find out. Overcoming the struggle without a group of people to help out or without any peers that I could relate with, was probably the biggest barrier I had. ‘Cause when you don’t feel like you fit in, or when there’s no one to speak to, it’s impossible to really try to push forward,” Tompkins said.

On the first day, he said he left the college about 15 times. “It’s funny now, but then I was so frustrated it was unbelievable because I had no one to connect with. There was just no one around … when I finally got through the admissions part of it, I still didn’t really have a clear idea of what was even possible for me, what other people, like myself, [who] were coming from a rough history, could do. I just knew I wanted to go to school.”

Tompkins would eventually be compelled to do something constructive about it.

As one of the co-founders of a campus group called Free on the Outside, a group of previously incarcerated students that help each other overcome their internal fears, find encouragement through the friendships and work toward educational achievement, he has come a long way. Being a part of this student-focused group has helped him become a leader among his peers.

Tompkins said he first became inspired by Danny Muerillo.

Muerillo launched a similar organization a few years ago at the University of California, Berkeley campus called Underground Scholars Initiative.

Muerillo, advocate for previously incarcerated students like himself, and has opened up conversations at UC Berkeley and been in the media spotlight for spreading awareness about the hardships that these students face when navigating the collegiate system that can often make them feel stigmatized as they try to succeed and be taken seriously academically.

Before Free on the Outside formed, there weren’t any other groups at BC that helped students like Tompkins, so having a group like this will promote successful students because, as he puts it, “We want the narrative instead to be, instead of being someone that’s down-trodden and beaten, we want to have a hero story, a success story where we’ve overcome. We want to be seen as overcomers and successes versus being defined by our pasts.”

“I’m only a year into my education. There’s much further that needs to go, but I believe that with what we’re doing and the accomplishments that I already have and what I have to build on now because of Free on the Outside and what we’re doing together, its more possible now than it’s ever been before. Now that we’ve had extreme struggles, now we can know extreme success,” he said.