Felonies to 4.0s

Antonio Reza ’18 beat the odds and graduated top of his class

By Maura Sullivan Hill Posted Thu, 02/21/2019 - 09:13

When Antonio Reza arrived at USF in 2016 after serving jail time, he didn't want his new classmates or professors to know about his past. His goal was to stay under the radar, complete his degree in communication studies, and prove himself without the stigma of his felony conviction.

But the first class he took was criminology, which included a visit to a state prison that required security clearance. Reza ’18 knew that his conviction would show up in the security check, so he met with sociology Professor Kimberly Richman after class and told her about driving the getaway car in four armed robberies in the East Bay when he was a teenager.

She kept his secret throughout the semester, but on the last day of class, Reza told his story to his classmates, taking full responsibility for his actions and answering their questions about his experience in the criminal justice system.

And when he graduated from USF in December 2018, Reza told the whole story again, this time as the commencement speaker of his class.

Changing the criminal justice system

Reza, who attended community college and then graduated from the top of his class at USF, says he “turned my felony into 4.0s.” He was determined to graduate from college to buck the recidivism rate among released prisoners.

According to the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, 75 percent of former inmates are arrested again within five years of release. Many people with felony convictions struggle with finding jobs and housing upon re-entry to society, and Reza experienced some of that discrimination firsthand when he was looking for jobs after his release.

He was able to beat the odds, and now he wants to help others do the same by becoming a lawyer.

“Yes, there are a lot of bad people in prison, but there are also a lot of people — like me — who made mistakes and learned their lesson,” says Reza, who led the USF chapter of Alliance for Change, a nonprofit founded by Richman to help former prisoners transition back into their communities. “I realized that to make any big changes, you need to get into law.”

Reza has acceptance letters and scholarship offers from several law schools and is still weighing his options. But wherever he ends up, he says that he wants to change the perception of the criminal justice system as a “revolving door.”

Communication is key

Growing up in Newark, California, Reza saw violence as a normal response to frustrating or confusing situations.

“I saw so many instances where a volatile or explosive situation that ended with extreme violence could have been avoided if the communication was there. That’s why I picked my major,” he says.

Along with communications studies, Reza completed minors in sociology and legal studies, and ended up at USF because his mom worked on campus. He called USF “a place of knowledge and a refuge to help me continue down a positive path.”

“Perseverance comes to mind when I think of Antonio,” Richman says. “He just doesn’t give up, ever.”

As he looks to the future, Reza says, “I want to help break the stereotype of formerly incarcerated people. I was not an innocent bystander — I definitely put myself in some bad positions. But I learned, and now I try every single day to bring some positivity and light back into this world.”

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