Education the Pillar of Change

Alexander Denning keeps busy these days. He’s a Rochester Community and Technical College (RCTC) student looking forward to eventually getting his four-year degree. He’s a model. He’s busy working as a waiter. He was just in New York for Fashion Week. Oh, and he’s trying to put on a fashion show at the Kahler Grand Hotel while also maintaining his social media channels to leverage more gigs.

“Juggling everything has been a bit difficult,” he admitted.

You could say he is making up for lost time after serving a six-year prison sentence for first-degree assault, leaving prison in April 2017.

Or, you could say that Denning just pushes whatever he finds an interest in to the limits, for better or worse.

“This is how I describe my whole entire life… everything I do, I need to do it the best,” Denning explained.

That meant when he was younger, growing up in sunny Fresno, Calif., and skateboarding, he did it well enough to travel America thanks to sponsorship deals.

“When I get something, I focus so hard on it I block everything out and focus on this thing,” Denning said. “It’s a good quality, just not when it turns to me being, ‘oh, I want to be a criminal.’”

Denning used to look up to that kind of financial power and security that, say, mob bosses had.

Meeting another inmate in prison helped him get away from that mindset.

Alexander Denning.

“We became friends,” Denning said, describing him as a member of the family.

His friend would recommend books to read, like “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli, considered the first work written on modern political philosophy. He’d read and then they’d talk about the content, what he believed, and his morals.

“He would just talk to me; he molded me into this person,” Denning said. “I thought, ‘wow. I’m actually smart. I can do these things. I can take these college courses and actually get A’s. I can tell people what I believe in now, I can tell people, this is what I stand for.’ I established these morals that had deteriorated over a time period.

“I had a change of heart, a change of mind,” he continued. “I accepted God into my life. I don’t think that’s what it takes for everybody is religion, just maybe there’s these other aspects, and you hear it a hundred times and it takes the 101st time to actually hear it.”

He began taking online college courses while incarcerated.

“When I was in prison I pushed hard to get college classes,” Denning said. Different schools like Inver Hills Community College and Augsburg University would cycle through with classes. “I took advantage of every one of those, but I would do one every four months. And I was like, ‘this isn’t enough.’

“As soon as I got out I thought, that’s my main goal. I need to stay focused on education,” Denning recalled. “Even if I don’t know what I want to do just yet … I need to get my education. Show people I’m pushing toward change, because that’s what I want people to see, what I want for myself. School is the most important thing. Modeling won’t last forever.”

Denning had just over 30 credits before he enrolled at RCTC. It was tough because not only could he not take a lot of classes, but he had to pay full price. He wasn’t eligible for financial aid.

“It’s kind of hard without financial aid or loans. But I made it work,” he said.

And when he was trying to enroll at RCTC, it was a challenge to make sure he knew what to do. He thanks an advisor for helping him get everything sorted out.

“I had a change of heart, a change of mind,” he continued. “I accepted God into my life.”

“He was very nice to work with, and determined to complete his AA,” RCTC online academic advisor Kerry Schad recalled.

On top of the typical student enrollment issues Denning had to worry about, there was the question of whether or not someone convicted of a felony could enter college. But RCTC lets everyone apply and enroll.

It is part of the mission of the College to improve the people of this community – all people.

“Community colleges were built with the acknowledgement that we are the community’s college and offer open-access to ensure anyone wanting to further their education is allowed to do so,” RCTC director of admissions Alicia Zeone said. “This gives students from all backgrounds the opportunity to propel themselves further than they thought was possible. Our mission is to provide accessible education to our community – and we deliver on that by having an open-door admissions policy.”

It allows for renewed or new opportunity for any student, whether or not they have a checkered past. After all, life is gray, and not every chapter need be a bad one.

Denning is an example of someone’s arc reaching new and better heights. This particular student has been happy with his choice to attend RCTC.

“Everything from how courteous everyone is here to how helping they are… at first I had a tutor… and she just helped me get everything organized,” said Denning. “I was so lost. I hadn’t been to school in so long. Signing up, knowing where to go, and they helped me out tremendously and didn’t let me give up, because I got frustrated over stuff.

“This is definitely a good platform for me for where next is. I like RCTC. It’s a good school. I’ve gained a lot from it just being here so far, and I think a lot will come from it still.”