While earning a degree can often be difficult, it is safe to say few have endured the type of obstacles Benny Hernandez III had to overcome to walk across the A&M-Central Texas stage.
He recently graduated summa cum laude, earning his bachelor’s degree while serving 10 years in prison.
“The education was unconventional but nevertheless here it is and these are the fruits of my labor,” said Hernandez after his ceremony.
But to understand how he got here, you need to know where he started. We met up with Hernandez at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at University of Texas at Austin where he will spend the next couple of years studying. The top 10 public policy graduate school is nationally ranked at number seven.
If you ask Hernandez, he will tell you from the beginning, the odds were against him
“Father and my mother substance abuse problem,” Hernandez said. “They, you know, struggled with their own problems and were incarcerated most of my childhood.”
He sits at the graduate school sifting through a photo album that kept him motivated while incarcerated.
“The system doesn’t make it easy,” he said.
After renouncing his gang membership, legislative advocacy took Hernandez not only to the White House but also to the Vatican. However, he says a serious substance abuse problem got in the way of his success, leading to his prison sentence.
“I have made it my life’s mission to try to reach out to individuals who may have been in a position where I was,” Hernandez explained.
The Texas Prison Education Initiative reports nearly two-thirds of former Texas inmates will be rearrested within three years of their release.
However, they say education programs in prison drastically reduce the chance of an inmate’s rearrest. According to a study from Emory University, an associate’s degree brings the rate to 13.7 percent and a master’s degree drops the rate to 0 percent.
Hernandez earned both his associate’s and bachelor’s degrees while in prison.
Anthony Fulmore was one of Hernandez’s professors at A&M-Central Texas. He says teaching inmates helps him give back to the community.
“Once they get released, if they have education, you know they can contribute back to society,” said Fulmore.
His sister, Frances Hunt, hopes his story paves the way for others.
“I think it’s definitely unique but I hope that it becomes a new normal” said Hunt.
A GoFundMe was started to help pay for Hernandez ’s tuition at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.