University student reaches finals of national scholarship
Person of the week
It took Walter Fortson five months of exercise in prison, on charges for possession and intent to sell crack cocaine and marijuana, before he could do his first pull-up.
But after his release and admission to the University, the 26-year-old School of Arts and Sciences junior is a finalist for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship and chairs the Mountainview Project, a community outreach program for tutoring prison inmates, while studying exercise science and sport studies.
“I remember the feeling [exercise] gave me. It was something I conquered,” the Philadelphia native said. “I felt more confident. I had a better personality. There were so many benefits I found from it. I thought, ‘This is something that’s interesting. This is something worth knowing.’”
Fortson came a long way to get to where he is at the University, he said. While he enrolled as a business major at Temple University in 2005, he began an online sneaker company.
As the business took off, he dropped out of school to devote more time to it, he said.
His business eventually folded over threats of copyright infringement, as he was procuring the sneakers from street vendors in New York City, so Fortson turned to another form of income to support his then 1-year-old son, his girlfriend, his sister and his brother — selling crack cocaine.
At a time when money was tight, dealing drugs was an appealing option, he said.
“I didn’t care [about] the connotations that come along with it. This is business,” he said. “I did it for a year … in hindsight, it wasn’t survival. It was greed.”
Fortson said police searched his big, red suburban truck as he idled outside of the most dangerous projects in Atlantic City. They found three pounds of marijuana, two handguns and an ounce and a half of crack cocaine, he said.
“There was a drought of [crack cocaine,] so to speak. I was buying weed to supplement the loss,” Fortson said. “I’m thankful, because if I had been caught with what I usually had, it would have been a harsher sentence.”
He served more than two years at the Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility in Annandale, N.J., with two years on parole.
While serving his sentence, Donald Roden, co-coordinator of the Mountainview Program, an initiative that identifies students in New Jersey’s youth correctional facilities as possible candidates for admission to the School of Arts and Sciences in New Brunswick, approached Fortson about applying.
“He was more excited to meet me than I was him,” he said. “He told me I was a great candidate for the Mountainview Program. He had me sold.”
Because Roden, an associate professor in the Department of History, cared about Fortson and his potential for the program, Fortson felt more enthusiastic about coming to the University.
“While I was in prison, I considered my life over. Dr. Roden looked at me like I was a person, not an animal,” he said. “He looked at me like [I was] Walter.”
Fortson was admitted to the University while he was still in prison and commuted to the University from September 2009 to March 2010 from his halfway house in Newark, N.J., he said.
Fortson was glad to leave prison and enter the University to get his life back on track, he said.
“Prison is the worst place that anybody would ever want to go,” he said. “It’s not something I would wish on my enemy. What I was doing was definitely wrong, but I felt so degraded, words can’t describe it.”
At the University, Fortson established the Mountainview Project as a prisoner assistance program with other students who came to the University through the Mountainview Program.
“A lot of inmates are illiterate or below a sixth-grade level of education,” he said. “It was the desire of the Mountainview students who came through the program to get there to extend that gift. Being there, we know all too well that without an education, it’s going to be impossible to make it anywhere in life.”
Fortson’s initiative includes 280 students and faculty members that arrange to tutor in-state female and male correctional facilities in New Jersey through a Sakai website.
“It’s so fulfilling to see so many people who have never been through that experience care about it,” he said. “Hearing how fulfilling it is for them is fulfilling for me.”
Fortson is also a member of the School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program, the health chair at the University’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation scholar and a First-Year Interest Group peer instructor, he said.
After hearing about Fortson through a Daily Targum story on the Mountainview Project, Art Casciato, director of external fellowships, suggested Fortson apply for the Truman Scholarship.
Casciato said the Truman Scholarship is the most competitive in the nation, with strong candidates demonstrating academic excellence, creative leadership and community service — all of which are things Fortson possesses.
“What makes Walter a special candidate for the Truman is of course how far he has had to come to get where he is today,” he said. “It doesn’t hurt that [he] is about as polite and friendly an undergraduate as I’ve ever met, with an unmistakable warmth about him.”
Casciato said Fortson is likable even before learning that he is so helping to ex-offenders and is an ex-offender himself.
“In my 12 years of helping students apply for fellowships, I don’t think I’ve ever had a more deserving candidate than Walter Fortson, and I couldn’t be happier that he’s been asked to interview for the Truman,” he said.
The Truman Scholarship received 587 nominations of students from 272 colleges and universities nationally, Casciato said. Of these, 191 nominees from 124 schools were named finalists, and from this group about 60 scholars will be selected for $30,000 toward their graduate education, he said.
Fortson will interview in Philadelphia on March 19 with 12 other finalists that attend schools in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, he said. Usually one to three scholars are selected from each state, he said.
In the University’s history, only seven students are Truman Scholars, with the last recipient winning the scholarship in 2001, he said.
Roden said he was thrilled to learn that Fortson is a finalist for the Truman Scholarship.
“He is richly deserving of the Truman Scholarship, and everyone associated with the Mountainview Program at Rutgers is enormously proud of his achievement,” he said.
An interview for the Truman Scholarship is surreal for Fortson, he said.
“If you’d have told me two years ago when I was in the halfway house that I had an opportunity to make Rutgers history, I probably would’ve been upset with you and walked away,” Fortson said. “I’m going to put my best foot forward and give it what I got.”
Fortson, who hopes to become a professor that researches inmate populations some day, said winning the scholarship would mean the world to him.
“Winning the scholarship would almost be synonymous to the way Barack Obama felt when he won the election. I don’t know what I would do,” he said. “I’m that much closer to a Ph.D. — to achieving my dream. I’m that much closer to creating social change in the Department of Corrections.”