Education

UK professor helps former prisoner graduate

Robert Ross, left, stood with retired chemistry professor Joe Wilson in a lab in the Chemistry-Physics Building on the University of Kentucky campus recently. Wilson helped Ross work toward an undergraduate degree while he was in prison. Free since 2009, Ross graduates Sunday from UK.
Robert Ross, left, stood with retired chemistry professor Joe Wilson in a lab in the Chemistry-Physics Building on the University of Kentucky campus recently. Wilson helped Ross work toward an undergraduate degree while he was in prison. Free since 2009, Ross graduates Sunday from UK.

For two years, retired University of Kentucky professor Joe Wilson taught college chemistry to Robert Ross, who was in federal prison.

Wilson mailed Ross's homework and exams to him and graded the work Ross sent back. In 2009, when Ross was released from prison and enrolled in regular classes at UK, Wilson continued to meet with him.

Wilson was among several UK chemistry professors who helped Ross and looked past the stigma "that's going to be associated with me forever," Ross said.

Now Ross is scheduled to graduate from UK Sunday with a bachelor's degree in biochemistry. On April 30, Wilson was honored at the annual Teachers who Made a Difference ceremony. Hosted by the UK College of Education, the program gives people the opportunity to thank the educators who inspired them to succeed.

"He had a lot of things working against him, and he's overcome them all," Wilson said of Ross. "He's a nice person. He's highly motivated. I think it's remarkable."

Ross, 40, a Henderson native, said his parents worked hard and tried to give their children a good life. Nevertheless, Ross took his first drink of alcohol in the seventh grade, smoked pot before he was in the ninth grade and, in high school, tried everything from cocaine to LSD to methamphetamine, he said.

Ross's early criminal history, which included disorderly conduct and trafficking in drugs, was tied to his drug use, he said.

In the mid-1990s Ross spent several months in jail for drug trafficking and after his release began studying chemistry at Berea College. But after his mother died of cancer, his life took another downward spiral.

In 2000, Ross was convicted on a federal charge of attempting to manufacture methamphetamine with intent to distribute and was sentenced to 120 months in prison.

At the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Ross decided he wanted to honor his dead mother and his father, who had also died. "I decided to stop being such a waste," he said.

When Ross contacted several colleges and asked whether any professor would be willing to continue teaching him chemistry, he met retired UK professor Donald Sands, who visited him in prison to help him complete physical chemistry courses sanctioned by UK.

"He was determined to get an education," said Sands. "He didn't let his circumstances defeat him."

Ross then needed a course called "Spectrometric Identification of Organic Compounds." Wilson, who retired from UK in 1999, agreed to teach it to Ross.

Sands and Wilson took special training at the federal prison on how to work with inmates so they could volunteer their services.

Ross and Wilson met a few times at the Lexington prison. But because Ross was transferred to two different federal prisons in Pennsylvania and was not allowed access to a computer, the bulk of the course work was done by mail.

"Conditions were not ideal," said Wilson.

It took four semesters to complete one course. An official at one of the Pennsylvania federal prisons who oversaw educational programs was willing to act as a proctor when Ross took a test, Wilson said.

Ultimately, Ross earned a B.

When Ross was released in February 2009, he rode a Greyhound bus from Pennsylvania to Lexington carrying a few items of clothing and his chemistry books in a plastic trash bag, he said.

He had "no housing, no employment, no money and no family or community support," Carol P. Martin, his federal probation officer, said in a November 2010 letter explaining his probation status to graduate schools.

Ross quickly moved from a homeless shelter to a boarding house to a job, full-time enrollment at UK and his own apartment, Martin said in the letter.

During his first week out of prison, Ross and Wilson met. They started meeting about once a month for lunch. They talk about everything from Ross's chemistry course work to Wilson's grandchildren.

Ross now has a 3.3. grade-point average.

Ross's probation officer said in her November 2010 letter that Ross's drug tests were clean.

"He has proven to be very focused and dedicated," Martin said in the letter.

In an interview last week, Martin said she continues to see no illegal behavior.

Biochemists work with enzymes, proteins and carbohydrates, Wilson said, and their work can result in advances in medicine and pharmaceuticals.

But because of his criminal history, Ross said, he has had no luck getting accepted to graduate schools, including UK's. As a result, he said, it will be tough to fulfill his goal of working in a lab to save the lives of people suffering from diseases like cancer.

Meanwhile, Wilson said he wouldn't hesitate to help other inmates who share Ross's commitment.

"I would help anybody who ... was that persistent, ambitious and able," said Wilson. "It doesn't have so much to do with their past history, but 'Do they want help,' and 'Can I give them some?' "

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